How to Help Solve Math Problems by Using Critical Thinking Skills

5 min to read
A student and learning coach solving math problems using critical thinking skills

Providing guidance in math can be challenging for parents if they have their own math anxiety or do not feel confident in their own ability to help their child learn skills they aren’t familiar with. Frustration with math could lead to children wanting to give up or let their parents do the work for them. Fortunately for you, helping your child with math can be as easy developing their critical thinking skills by asking questions.

The Role of Critical Thinking in Helping Students in Math

According to The Critical Thinking Consortium, when students think critically while working on math problems, “they make reasoned decisions or judgements about what to do and think”, instead of just guessing at what they think the right approach is from what they’ve learned, which ultimately can lead to greater success in solving math problems.

In addition, students who learn to think critically in math develop not only a deeper engagement and understanding of the material, but also a “stronger overall competence with mathematical processes.” This means more success with current math challenges, as well as greater aptitude for success in future and more challenging math classes. 

How to Help Your Child with Math at Home

To help students approach math problems through the lens of critical thinking, often you need to get them to look at the problem from a new angle. This may mean taking a step back to examine the goal of the problem. 

Encourage them to develop their critical thinking skills by discussing the problem aloud with you, using the following questions:

What are you being asked to find? 

Understanding what the math problem is asking them to do requires students to focus on the solution and helps them consider how to attack a problem.

Where do you think you should begin?

Asking the student to think through problem-solving from the very beginning allows them to take the problem one small step at a time rather than trying to solve it all at once. ?

What do you think you should do next?

Often, students just need assurance that they’re on the right track. This encourages them to continue and to make an attempt—which develops academic courage. Often, it is in making mistakes that the best learning occurs.

An online elementary school student, working through math problems with critical thinking skills.

How to Help Solve Math Problems with Critical Thinking - Elementary Students

Elementary school is the best time to encourage your child to start using critical thinking to aid them in solving math problems. Here are some questions to ask elementary students to help them solve math problems:

Would it help to draw the problem?

At this age and stage, students are still developing and clarifying their unique learning style. So, trying different visualization methods may help them tap into what works well for them. For example, drawing a picture or even using physical objects around the house can help them crack open a problem. 

How will you know if your answer is right or wrong?

By asking how they know the answer is correct, you encourage them to think more about how the solution works, rather than just believing that it does.

How to Help Solve Math Problems with Critical Thinking - Middle School Students

Middle school is where the difficulty level of math problems can really jump up quite quickly. In addition, the middle school years are also when a lot of a child’s critical thinking muscles are starting to develop, which means it’s all the more important to help your child hone their reasoning and deduction skills by asking questions like: 

Can you describe the problem in your own words? 

Many times, just talking through what the problem is asking for helps students make the necessary connections by rephrasing it and giving them a chance to see the problem from a different perspective. Thinking aloud can serve as an opportunity to realize where there are gaps in their understanding and if they need to reach out to their teacher or a tutor. 

What’s another way to try to solve this problem?

Perserverance is a key element of critical thinking, and especially important in this stage of learning. If your middle school student hits a dead end in solving a problem, encourage them to persevere and consider other ways to solve the math problem. 

An online high school student using critical thinking skills and math problem help to complete an assignment.

How to Help Solve Math Problems with Critical Thinking - High School Students

Though high school level math may be where getting extra math problem help at home becomes more difficult for some, you can still help them work through their problems logically by asking the following question:

Is there anything you do know about the problem that might help you get started?

Laying out all the information at the top encourages students to look at smaller parts of the problem or see similarities with other types of math problems they’ve already solved. Realizing that they’ve solved a similar problem before not only builds confidence but can also spark their memory of the equations or operations they used at the time to find the answer.

Does your answer make sense?

Learning Coaches can use this question to help students evaluate their solutions. If students don’t take the time to consider whether or not their solution makes sense, they sometimes end up submitting an incorrect answer despite having a solid understanding of the steps necessary to complete the task. If they slow down to give math problems a bit of extra thought, students can also gain insight into how well they understand (or don’t understand!) the material.

Whether your family attends online school, homeschool, or a brick-and-mortar school, asking these questions will empower you to get more involved in your student’s learning and help them move forward in math.

To learn how you can be more involved in your child’s education through online public school, download our free eGuide.

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