Solving Word Problems

I am a High School Science Teacher and we deal with a lot of word problems that contain many variables that could fit into many different equations. Here is how I break down the content step by step for my students. 
Physics Problem
A box is accelerating across a frictionless surface. It is being pushed with 75 newtons of force and the has a mass of 10 kilograms. What is the magnitude of the box's acceleration?
1) You want to identify and label all variables presented to you in the problem.
     Ex: F = 75 N, m = 10 kg
2) Identify and Label the Variable the question is asking you to find.
     Ex: a = ?
3) List possible known equations that have the variable you need to solve for.
     Ex: a = v/t
           F = ma
4) Choose the equation that has variables that are known from the problem.
     Ex: We know m and F so equation F = ma is the equation I would choose. 
5) Plug in information that is known and solve for the unknown variable. 
     Ex: 75 N = 10 kg (a)              divide by 10 kg on both sides of the equal sign and a = 7.5 m/s2
Following these 5 easy steps really helps my students keep everything in order and solve for the true answer to the question being asked.
Hope this helps and if additional help is needed I would be happy to assist in any science class.
Thank You!
Jonathan R.


Hi Jonathan!
This is essentially the exact same way I teach all my physics students. Most of my AP/first-year undergraduate physics learners are too daunted by the simultaneous pressure to (1) get the answer right and (2) gain a strong grasp on the actual concepts underlying the equations to do either (1) or (2) properly. Like your example shows, most word problems at this level boil down to really simple algebra!
However, I find that teaching this particular lesson (physics word problems = simple algebra problems) is one I have to keep repeating for most students. As we move on in the curriculum, every time a new math element appears (such as the need to do trigonometry or read wave graphs), it all goes out the window and the panic sets in again.
Have you been able to make the initial "physics success = algebra" stick for anyone?


Jonathan R.

Certified High School Science Teacher/Mathematics Tutor/ACT Prep

50+ hours
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