Improving Mathematical Problem Solving in Grades 4 Through 8

The What Works Clearinghouse has released a new guide focused on improving math skills in students in the middle grades.  The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), part of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), functions as a central repository for education research on “what works” in education.

Periodically, IES releases a “practice guide” based on the most recent research, to describe best practices for a particular area of education.  The new practice guide, Improving Mathematical Problem Solving in Grades 4 Through 8, describes five strategies to improve students’ mathematical problem-solving skills.  The guide recommends that teachers:

  1. Prepare problems and use them in whole-class instruction.
  2. Assist students in monitoring and reflecting on the problem-solving process.
  3. Teach students how to use visual representations.
  4. Expose students to multiple problem-solving strategies.
  5. Help students recognize and articulate mathematical concepts and notation.

Along with presenting the recommendations, IES indicates how much high-quality evidence backs up the publication panel’s recommendation.  For those above, the first has minimal evidence, the second and third strong evidence, and fourth and fifth moderate evidence.  “Despite the varying levels of evidence, the panel believes all five recommendations are important for promoting effective problem-solving skills in students.”  Particularly addressing recommendation one, the panel notes that few studies have actually focused on the effects of teacher planning on achievement, in any subject area.  However, it is clear that a teacher’s intentional construction of particular types of problems is integral for improving students’ skills.

To download the guide and see these recommendations in detail, including implementation ideas and examples, summaries of supporting research, and solutions to common roadblocks, please visit