Exemplars Problem Solving: A Threefold Solution

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Written by: Phil Sanders, Elementary Math Supervisor, Plainville Community Schools, CT

For the last three years, Plainville Community School teachers have dedicated themselves to the use of the Exemplars Problem-Solving Program. There are many reasons for this. First, it is an excellent, Common Core standard aligned, comprehensive problem-solving program. Teachers from Kindergarten to grade 5 comment most often about how it really works for their students. Principals also agree that they have seen tremendous growth in students’ ability to understand a problem, develop a plan to solve a problem and create models to show their thinking about how they solved the problem.

The Challenge

Plainville has adopted a rather unique approach to tackling the issue of students being successful on pencil-and-paper math work but falling down on problem solving. Three years ago we realized that our students were not understanding what the problem-solving tasks were asking them to do, and students often failed to develop a well-thought-out plan to solve the tasks. When examining student work, teachers saw students picking numbers out of the problem and running them through the latest algorithm. When asked to discuss their thinking, students responded with confusion or lack of understanding.

A Threefold Solution

Exemplars has provided us with the vehicle to tackle these seemingly insurmountable issues. The program provides standard-aligned problems that lend themselves to students being successful. Our approach was three-fold: Understanding was our focus the first year, Communication the second year and Accuracy the third year.

  1. Teachers, through their district-wide PLCs, developed slideshows based on the problems, helping to create contextual understanding of what the problem was discussing. This helped activate the UDL aspect of instruction, allowing all students to gain a foothold for their understanding.
  2. Through small group work and modeling of different problem-solving strategies, students next developed their proficiency at drawing models to communicate their thinking. All this information came directly from the Exemplars Preliminary Planning Sheets, which teachers found to be crucial to understanding all aspects of the problem.
  3. Last, we focused on accuracy and found that students were ahead of the curve. Because of their developed understanding and ability to use models, students’ overall accuracy increased tremendously.

One of the ancillary benefits to the Exemplars program is that we found students were able to have either small group (Turn and Talk) or whole group discussions about what they have learned and were able to defend their findings using evidence stemming from the Exemplars problem they had completed.

Teachers find the copious amount of information included in the Exemplars program to be extremely helpful. We have incorporated Exemplars Summative problems as end-of-topic assessments, and in grades 3–5 we have seen growth of our SBAC scores. We attribute these gains to our work with the Exemplars Problem-Solving Program.