How do I figure out math word problems (without going crazy)?

Hold onto your sanity! Word problems often trip up even the best math students. Many get stumped trying to figure out what they're looking to solve. Without knowing what's being asked, students have trouble making sense of all the critical information in the question.

Word problems can involve arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and combinations of each with various twists. The difference between success and frustration can revolve around having a systematic approach to solving word problems. Here's one technique for unraveling those pesky problems:

  1. First, identify what is being asked. What are you ultimately trying to find? How far a car has traveled? How fast a plane flies? How many items can be purchased? Whatever it is, find the central question and circle it. You'll be on the right track from the start if you're sure you know what's being asked.
  2. Next, underline and pull out information you are given in the problem. Draw a picture if you can. This helps you know what you have and will point you to a relationship or equation. Note any key words in the problem, such as "sum," "difference," "product," "divided into," or "ratio."
  3. If you can, set up an equation or some straightforward system with the given information.
  4. Is all the given information necessary to solve the problem? Occasionally, you may be given more than enough information to solve a problem. Choose what you need and don't spend needless energy on the unnecessary stuff.
  5. Carefully solve the equation or work the necessary computation. Be sure you are working in the same units (for example, you may have to change feet into inches, pounds into ounces, and so on to keep everything consistent).
  6. Did you answer the question? One common error in answering word problems is the failure to answer what was actually being asked. Look back at the central question you circled. Does your answer correspond to the question?
  7. Finally, is your answer reasonable? Check to make sure that an error in computation or a mistake in setting up your equation did not give you a ridiculous answer.