Basic Problem Solving Strategy

The purpose of this course is to provide a general overview of the steps to solving a basic word problem.

Solving Word Problems

Step 1 - Identify the question

The reason some people struggle to solve word problems is because they do not understand what the question is actually asking.  It is easy to get caught up in the details and miss the real question being addressed.  Take a look at this question:

A store had 9 small books on sale. It only sold 5 of them. How many books does the store have left?

If you look closely at the end of the problem, the last sentence is the question being asked.  "How many books does the store have left?"  It is often the case that the last sentence will be the actual question.

Let's look at 3 examples to see if we can determine what question is being asked.

You have two buckets. If you put six jewels in each bucket, how many total will you have?

  • How many jewels will you have?
  • How many buckets will you have?
Look carefully and pick what the question is asking you to do.

Step 2 - Identify the Relevant Information

You will sometimes find that more information will be given in a word problem than you actually need.  By knowing what the question is asking, you can determine what information will be necessary to solve the problem.  For example, if you need to know the total cost of ingredients for a particular recipe, the necessary information will include what items you purchased for the recipe and how much each costs.

Katie is making an apple pie for a bake sale.  She went to the store and bought pie crust and pie filling.  The pie crust was $2.45 and 2 cans of pie filling were $1.00 each.  She also picked up a $0.75 pack of trail mix to snack on during the walk home.  How much did she spend on ingredients for the pie?

Since the question is asking about the cost of ingredients for the pie, is the cost of the trail mix relevant to the question?  No.  Of course not.  We only need to know the cost of the crust and filling.

You can walk 10 feet in 13 seconds. Your bedroom is about 25 feet from the family room. How many seconds will it take you to walk 50 feet from your family room to your garage?

  • It takes you 13 seconds to walk 10 feet.
  • Your bedroom is 25 feet from the family room.
  • The distance from the family room to the garage is 50 feet.
  • All of the information is relevant to the question.
Select each piece of information that is relevant to answer the question. 

Step 3 - Determine which operation is required to solve it

Once we know what the question is asking and what information is needed to solve it, the next step is to figure out what operation or operations we will use to find the solution.  Will we add, subtract, multiply, or divide?  Or will we use more than one operation in a multistep problem?


Debra lives 5 miles from practice. If she can run each mile in 10 minutes and leaves at 2:45, what time will she arrive?

We have identified that this question is asking the time she will arrive at practice.

We know that she can run 1 mile in 10 minutes.  We also know she will leave for practice at 2:45.  So what operations will we use to solve this?

If Debra runs 1 mile in 10 minutes, how many minutes will it take to run 5 miles?

  • Addition
  • Subtraction
  • Multiplication
  • Division
Which operation will we use to solve this part of the word problem?

If Debra leaves at 2:45, what time will she arrive at practice?

  • Addition
  • Subtraction
  • Multiplication
  • Division
We have already determined that she can run 5 miles in 50 minutes.  So what operation will we use to see what time she will arrive to practice?

Step 4 - Set up the equation and solve

Once we know what the question is asking, determine what information we need to use, and figure out which operation(s) are needed to solve, we move on to step 4 - Set up the equation and solve it.

Let's take a look at this question:

Each child in class can collect 35 stamps per week. If there are 5 children in the class, how many stamps can be collected in 4 weeks?

The question is asking how many stamps can be collected over a 4 week period.


Each child in class can collect 35 stamps per week. If there are 5 children in the class, how many stamps can be collected in 4 weeks?

  • The number of stamps each child can collect per week.
  • The number of children in class.
  • The types of stamps to be collected.
  • The number of weeks the children will be collecting stamps.
  • All of the above.
  • None of the above.
What information is relevant to answer the question?

Each child in class can collect 35 stamps per week. If there are 5 children in the class, how many stamps can be collected in 4 weeks?

  • Addition
  • Subtraction
  • Multiplication
  • Division
Which operation will be used to solve the problem?

Each child in class can collect 35 stamps per week. If there are 5 children in the class, how many stamps can be collected in 4 weeks?

  • 35 X 5 + 4
  • 35 + 5 X 4
  • 35 X 5 X 4
  • 35 + 35 + 35 + 35
Which equation will you use to solve the problem?

Step 5 - Check your answer

Once you have a solution, you need to look at the question again to see if the answer makes sense.  If it does, Great!  

However, if something does not look right, check each step and check your math to make sure you followed each procedure correctly.


Are you ready to apply what you have learned to solve some word problems?

Problem Solving Post-Assessment

You can walk 10 feet in 13 seconds. How many seconds will it take you to walk 50 feet from your family room to your garage?

  • 50
  • 55
  • 60
  • 65

In math class Ron added up the numbers 8, 10, 11, and 16. After he was done he subtracted 6. What was the final number for Ron?

  • 35
  • 39
  • 45
  • 51

Barney has 99 small nails to hang 23 signs. If each sign requires 4 small nails, how many small nails will be left over after hanging the signs?

  • 5
  • 7
  • 9
  • 11

Debra lives 5 miles from practice. If she can run each mile in 10 minutes and leaves at 2:45, what time will she arrive?

  • 3:15
  • 3:25
  • 3:35
  • 3:45

You need to solve 6 chess problems to pass a test on Friday. If you have 2 minutes to take the test, how many seconds can you spend on each question?

  • 3
  • 12
  • 20
  • 60

Debra needs to divide $36 in quarters into 3 piles? How many quarters will be in each pile?

  • 48
  • 27
  • 108
  • 12

During a trip to the nature center on Monday Leslie collected 35 ants. She wants to give them to her 2 friends from the country. Before she divides the ants up, 13 get away. How many ants will each friend get?

  • 4.5
  • 57
  • 11
  • 44

Jared wants to order pizza for the birthday party on Wednesday. Each pizza has 8 slices. If the 6 kids at the party each eat 4 slices, how many pizzas should Jared order?

  • 8
  • 6
  • 10
  • 3

You have 5 small glass containers. If each one can hold 4 thumbtacks, how many thumbtacks will you need to fill your containers?

  • 20
  • 15
  • 25
  • 9

Sue wrote a great story about cats. The story has 60 sentences and each page can contain 12 sentences. How many pages will the story be?

  • 4
  • 5
  • 8
  • 10