5 Strategies for Successful Problem Solving

Problem solving can change the way students see maths – and how they see themselves as maths learners.

But, it's tough to help all students get the most out of a task.

To help, here are 5 Strategies for Problem Solving Success.

These are 5 valuable lessons I've learned from working with teachers across the globe. You can use these strategies with all your students, no matter their level.

5 Strategies for Problem Solving Success

Strategy 1: Choose a task that you're keen on

Your own enthusiasm is quickly picked up by your students. So, choose a problem, puzzle or game that you’re excited and curious about.

How do you know what will spark your curiosity? Do the task yourself!

(That’s why, in the workshops I run, we spend a lot of time actually exploring problems. It’s a chance to step into students' shoes and experience maths from their perspective.)

Strategy 2: Set a goal for strengthening problem solving skills

Often, curriculum content becomes the goal of problem solving. For example, adding fractions, calculating areas or solving quadratic equations.

But, this is a mistake! Here's why-

Low floor, high ceiling tasks give students choices. Choices about what strategies to use, tools to draw on – and even what end-points to get to.

The most valuable goals focus on building confidence and capability in problem solving. For example:

  • To make and break conjectures
  • To use and evaluate different strategies
  • To organise data in meaningful ways
  • To explain and justify their conclusions.
Strategy 3: Plan a short launch to make the task widely accessible

The start of a task is what will get your students curious and hungry to get underway.

Consider: What's the least information your students will need?

At ​our Members' online PL sessions​, we look at one of four possibilities for launching a problem:

  1. Present a mystery to explore
  2. Present an example and non-example
  3. Run a demonstration game
  4. Show how to use a tool.

Keep the launch short – under 5 minutes. This is just enough to keep students’ attention AND share essential information.

Strategy 4: Use questions, tools and prompts to support productive exploration

Let’s face it, problem solving is hard, no matter your age or mathematical skill set.

Students aren’t afraid of hard work – they’re afraid of feeling or looking stupid. And, when those tricky maths moments do come, you can help.

Using questions, tools and other prompts can bring clarity and boost confidence.

(Here's a free question catalogue you might find handy to have in your back pocket.)

This careful support will help your students find problem solving far less daunting. Instead, it can become a chance for wonderous mathematical exploration.

Strategy 5: Wrap up to create space for pivotal learning

Picture this: Your students are elbows deep in a problem, there’s a buzz in the air – oh, and only a minute until the bell.

The most important stage of a problem solving task – right at the end – is often the one that gets dropped off.

Why does ‘wrapping up’ matter?

In the last 10 minutes of a problem, students can share conjectures, strategies and solutions. It's also a chance to consider new questions that may open up further exploration.

In wrapping up, important learning will happen. Your students will observe patterns, make connections and clarify conjectures. You might even notice ‘aha’ moments.


Five strategies for problem solving success:

  1. Choose a task that YOU'RE keen on,
  2. Set a goal for strengthening problem solving skills,
  3. Plan a short launch to make the task widely accessible,
  4. Use questions, tools and prompts to support productive exploration, and
  5. Wrap up to create space for pivotal learning.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Michaela,
    Greetings !!
    Thank you for sharing the strategies for problem solving task. These strategies will definitely enhance the skill in the mindset of young learners.
    In India ,Students of Grade 9 and Grade 10 have to learn and solve lot of theorems of triangle, Quadrilateral, Circle etc. Being an educator I have noticed that most of the students learn the theorems and it’s derivation by heart as a result they lack in understanding the application of these theorems.

    I will appreciate if you can share your insights as how to make these topics interesting and easy to grasp.

    Once again thanks for sharing such informative ideas.

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