Word problems

Is it possible to design “real life” word problems that math students “feel a need to answer.” On Edspresso, “John Dewey,” a career-switcher studying to become a math teacher, ponders an education textbook writer’s complaint about standard word problems.

“With a real-life problem, students are confronted with puzzling questions they want to answer. Textbook word problems … present puzzling questions, but rarely are they questions students feel a need to answer.”

Another essayist rejects a problem about two people shoveling snow at different rates because he feels students won’t believe people can clear a path that quickly. (Doesn’t it depend on the length of the path?)

When I was in school, I thought I could lead a meaningful life without knowing how to calculate the height of flagpoles. My father told me I could use the same skills to calculate artillery trajectories, thereby passing OCS and avoiding service as an enlisted man. This real-life application didn’t make me any keener to solve problems. But I did them anyhow because I liked earning good grades.

At Exponential Curve, Dan Greene explains how he taught a lesson on graphing linear inequalities. I wonder if I ever learned this.

About Joanne


  1. Absolutely, math problems could be made to better relate to people, especially geometry. I do it all the time for my adult friends who think higher math is worthless. I am also a wannabe inventor and I use math to design my ideas and also put them to use. My ideas are craft kits aimed at the stereotypical girls market and I realize how much math and science seemed geared toward boys. It has been mentioned several times that assigned reading assignments in school bore the boys more than they do the girls and therefore contribute to boys doing more poorly. I think that there needs to be math problems geared towared sterotypical girl interests. For example, girls may not quilt as much as earlier generations, but quilting did help to relate geometry to something that is real for girls. Cake decorating is another area that can be a basis for a variety of math problems. I love math now and as a kid, but there was a period in junior high and high school where I grew to hate math. Math and science really seems to be geared toward male interests to the point that people don’t even think about it. I believe that one way to help girls’ scores in math is to include more math problems that include girls’ interests. I tutor kids in math, primarily girls for some reason (I take whoever comes to the center), and I make up my own problems for them based on what interest them, problems that are more real to the students. It makes a huge difference and also helps to motivate them to learn the more dry stuff if they see where it can lead eventually. I think lack of interest in math is the biggest problem of all.

  2. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Here’s a “real life” math problem:

    23) Johnny will fail his math test unless he figures out the value for x in the following equation:

    X^2 +4x -7 = X (X+3) – 28

    What does Johnny write down for an answer?