Use of exercises and problem solving in math teaching

By | November 15, 2011

Mathematical tasks can be classified broadly in two general types: exercises and problem solving tasks. Exercises are tasks used for practice and mastery of skills. Here, students already know how to complete the tasks. Problem solving on the other hand are tasks in which the solution or answer are not readily apparent. Students need to strategize – to understand the situation, to plan and think of mathematical model, and to carry-out and evaluate their method and answer.

Exercises and problem solving in teaching

Problem solving is at the heart of mathematics yet in many mathematics classes ( and textbooks) problem solving activities are relegated at the end of the unit and therefore are usually not taught and given emphasis because the teacher needs to finish the syllabus. The graph below represents the distribution of the two types of tasks in many of our mathematics classes in my part of the globe. It is not based on any formal empirical surveys but almost all the teachers attending our teacher-training seminars describe their use of problem solving and exercises like the one shown in the graph. We have also observed this  distribution in many of the math classes we visit.

The graph shows that most of the time students are doing practice exercises. So, one should not be surprised that students think of mathematics as a a bunch of rules and procedures. Very little time is devoted to problem solving activities in school mathematics and they are usually at the end of the lesson. The little time devoted to problem solving communicates to students that problem solving is not an important part of mathematical activity.

Exercises are important. One need to acquire a certain degree of fluency in basic mathematical procedures. But far more important to learn in mathematics is for students to learn to think mathematically and to have conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts. Conceptual understanding involves knowing what, knowing how, knowing why, and knowing when (to apply). What could be a better context for learning this than in the context of solving problems. In the words of S. L. Rubinshtein (1989, 369) “thinking usually starts from a problem or question, from surprise or bewilderment, from a contradiction”.

My ideal distribution of exercises and problem solving activities in mathematics classes is shown in the the following graph.

What is teaching for and teaching through problem solving?

Problems in mathematics need not always have to be an application problem. These types of problems are the ones we usually give at the end of the unit. When we do this we are teaching for problem solving. But there are problem solving tasks that are best given at the start of the unit. These are the ones that can be solved by previously learned concepts and would involve solutions that teachers can use to introduce a new mathematical concept. This strategy of structuring a lesson is called Teaching through Problem Solving. In this kind of lesson, the structure of the task is king. I described the characteristics of this task in Features of Good Problem Solving Tasks. Most, if not all of the lessons contained in this blog are of this type. Some examples:

  1. Teaching triangle congruence through problem solving
  2. Teaching the properties of equality through problem solving
Click the links for more readings about Problem Solving:
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