In 2004, Rob's students in Math 101A (Calculus I) and Math 166 (Finite Math) were given an assignment to write an essay answering the following questions:

Math students often struggle with "word problems," sometimes giving up before even trying them. Why do you think this is? And what can a math student do to succeed at such problems?

Here are some excerpts from what they wrote...

"I think one of the reasons is that word problems make people think more than just solving problems. We have to find what kind of hints the problem has and determine which equation we need to use."
"Word problems often integrate new applications and problem solving strategies for the math they are based on."
"It could be because of a language barrier, or plainly because of poor reading comprehension."
"Word problem is a very common problem, especially for someone with English as their second language. It's more difficult for them."
"Most students I know don't like both math and English, but word problems require using both."
"We don't believe in ourselves, we think we can't solve it, so why attempt something we think we can't do?"
"During homework assignments when you are given so many problems to do, and the last few problems are word problems, you just don't want to deal with all the thinking after the fifty problems you just did have worn you out."
"With word problems, our minds start to panic and we get all flustered. On top of solving an equation, we must first set the question up, and that is what makes us panic."
"Word problems take much longer than normal problems, so in homework they are often skipped and on tests are often saved for last."
"If a student already has a hard time with regular math problems, then they can get very overwhelmed and want to give up when they come across a word problem."
"In my experience the setting-up part is what causes me a problem, and I believe that going to the tutoring center to get help or asking a friend can help me become successful with these kind of problems. Another way could be practice, practice, practice."
"We just need to practice and solve the word problems over and over, so it will be easier to translate word problems into mathematical problems."
"Practice is the only way to solve word problems."
"The more we learn to see and understand the words we read, the easier it will become to tackle the problems and solve them as well."
"Math, in general, requires concentration and practice. Word problems just demands more of these."
"We have to keep practicing word problems, learn how to break them down, look for key words, and learn how to set up word problems."
"In order to succeed, I have to read the question and ask myself 'What do I need to find?'"
"The problem may need to be read multiple times to determine the necessary mathematical equation to come up with the correct answer."
"Math students can improve on doing word problems if they read them carefully and read them more than once until they know exactly what is going on. They should take notes and put down what's important while reading the problems."
"Students of all reading levels can try to break the math question into parts. Dissecting the problem will allow the student to understand what the variables are, and what is needed and asked."
"Little things such as taking the time to draw pictures of what you are trying to solve, rather than working through everything in your head is key."
"Students should relax and have a positive attitude towards their capabilities in math."
"Word problems are important because they reflect life."