Tag Archives: word problems

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Math Objectives


The math objectives present in the photos on this post were written for former students of mine. These types of objectives are ineffective and ubiquitous. When I have sat in IEP meetings the majority of the time I am the only person who is capable of evaluating IEP math objectives. This post provides some guidance for others to evaluate these objectives.

In the photo above the objective has 3 major flaws.

  • “Using tools” is ambiguous. A 4 year old can use a calculator even if he does not know what he is doing.
  • “Problem solving skills” is a broad term that needs to be defined.
  • “Improve” can mean a student increases a success rate from 0% to 1%. That speaks for itself.


In the objective above there are 2 major problems.

  • “Multi-step word problems” is very broad. If a student shows she can solve a problem that requires addition and then subtraction but no multiplication or division is this mastery?
  • Often the accommodations are built into the objective and therefore the assessment. I have repeatedly had educators tell me this is what the student needs. That is valid if there is no intention for the student to do the work independently but often that point is overlooked.


The objective above is similar to the previous example. The examples in the objective include “solving” and “graphing.” Is the student supposed to demonstrate mastery in all the different types of algebra concepts? Or, if he can solve equations is the objective mastered?

How can caregivers evaluate these objectives? 

The language of an effective objective can be used, almost verbatim, as  problem. For example

  • Objective: Billy will add fractions with like denominators.
  • Problem: Add the following fractions (with like denominators).

Have the person writing the objectives provide an example problem that can be used to assess mastery of the objective. If the problem includes additional information or language beyond what is written in the objective then the objective is ineffective. For example:

  • In objective 1 above (the first one) the objective is to use tools to improve problem solving skills.
  • Below is a possible problem (from LearnZillion.com) that could be used. I would ask the author of the objective to explain what problem solving skills should be demonstrated and to explain what constitutes improvement. Neither of these terms is explicitly stated in this problem. It is very likely that valid responses to these questions is not possible and hence the objective needs to be revised.

Solve the word problem above using a calculator.

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A Meaning Making Approach to Word Problems

Here is a typical story or word problem.

Dakota helped her father bake cookies. They baked 9 sugar cookies and 3 chocolate chip cookies. How many cookies did they bake total?

When solving word problem the focus is often on following steps, e.g. read the problem and identify important information. There is also a focus on identifying key words, e.g. “total.” The problem with both is they rely on rote memorization. How do we identify “important” information? Focusing on the word such as total does not address the concept of total but is more of a signaled command like “sit.” Students see “total” and they know they are supposed to add. The problem is they often don’t understand why.

The entry point to word problems should be a focus on the underlying concepts. For example, present the word problem with cutouts of the actual cookies and physically demonstrate “total” by pulling all the cookies together. Similarly, you can have cutouts of the tadpoles and demonstrate the concept of how many are left.

word problems focus on concept first concept first approach

Words are symbolic representations of ideas. Same with math symbols (below). Addressing the concepts, vocabulary and the process with this approach is a concrete-representational-approach (CRA). The equations below would not be addressed until the conceptual understanding was developed. When word problems presented do not include the term “total” the student can process the context as opposed to being reliant on the signal.

word problems focus on concept first traditional approach

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