Multi-Step Problems

By: Megan Prats



The problem-solving process can be summed to 3 steps – question, analysis, and answer. However, some questions allow for the analysis to be removed so that they become a two-step process – question and answer. For instance, you ask the student what is the word for “car” in Spanish and she responds “carro” because she already knows the word; thus, this student has accomplished a single step problem – question to answer. However, multi-step problems involve at least three steps – question, at least one step of analysis, and answer.


Independently navigating multi-step problems is an element of critical thinking because when the student creates the steps, she’s entering into the infinite realm of knowledge as the steps can come from anywhere within it and the student enters the second phase of critical thinking by filtering her ideas through the multi-step problem solving process so it exhibits critical thinking on two levels. =)  For the student to be rewarded for this element of critical thinking in her 2learn® Bank, she has to solve the problem without any assistance from you.


If you provide a student with a multi-step problem and she gets lost in the steps or is just overwhelmed at its complexity that she cannot even start to solve the problem, it is time for navigating multi-step problems development.

A lot of times, the student gets lost because she cannot see that she needs to solve the problem in a step-by-step fashion before arriving to the answer. It is like the student sees that she has to run 26.2 miles to complete the marathon instead of, “I have to run this mile, and then the next”, etc. When the student breaks the problem down into smaller, digestible parts, she can build the stepping stones to the answer for herself.

Thus, the first thing that you should do when developing this element of critical thinking is illustrate the multi-step problem solving process to the student so that she can visualize what she’s doing. For instance, in one lesson I used a jumprope that had many links that all attached to each other to show the student that to get from one end to the other, he had to go through each link.

Now that the student can see what needs to be done, she needs to decipher what the links are. This process is easier said than done as it at times helps to have foresight to the end to build links that lead in the right direction. Thus, you should explain to the student how she can develop those links even if she doesn’t know the outcome. The student can develop the links by asking herself smaller questions within the larger question. For instance, the student wants to say “She said it yesterday.” in Spanish. Thus, the student needs to ask herself the following series of questions in order to be able to translate “said” this sentence correctly:

Who is the actor?

What is the tense?

What tense in the past should be used?

Should I use ser or estar?

Is the preterite of “said” irregular in Spanish?

It is to be expected that the student won’t come up with the aforementioned list initially and she will probably need your help in determining what are the steps to the answer.  To do this, you can first ask her questions to get her to focus on one step of the problem.  For instance, in the aforementioned problem you can ask her, “Who is the actor?”.  Sometimes when you just get the student to focus on one step, she’ll be able to solve that one and work her way through the problem.  But, if she continues to get stuck, you can ask her more questions about individual steps of the problem to guide her through the process.  Make sure while you and the student are going through the steps that you have the student write the steps and answers down.  This way the student will have a visual road-map of the problem-solving process which will additionally assist the student in focusing on the problem, one step at a time.

Navigating multi-step problems takes place in the following phases: visualizing multi-step problems, identifying the steps in the problem, and answering the sub-questions correctly to arrive to the answer. You develop this skill in the student by showing her, vía questions, what she needs to do and where she needs to go.  However, the ultimate goal is for the student to do this whole process on her own.

© Megan Prats 2014

Leave a Comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *