At a Glance - How to Solve a Math Problem

There are three steps to solving a math problem.

1. Figure out what the problem is asking.
2. Solve the problem.

The whole "solving the problem" step will become a little more involved as we get deeper into algebra, but that's okay. What's life without a few challenges? How can highs be highs without the lows? Where—wait, where's our big book of platitudes?

When solving a problem, we want to break the problem into smaller pieces that we already know how to handle. After we work out the little pieces, we put them together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to get a final answer. If you're no good at putting together puzzles, you might have some trouble here, too. Our advice: sign up for a puzzle-putting-together class. Um, yeah, they have those. Sure.

Sample Problem

Below is a circle with a right triangle inside it. Each leg of the triangle has a length of x feet, and the hypotenuse of the triangle is the diameter of the circle. If the area of the triangle is  ft2, what's the area of the circle? Don't let the circle distract you with any of its Jedi mind tricks.

We'll go through this problem in a lot of detail, and it may seem like a bit of a marathon. You might want to grab a snack first; maybe take a power nap. Try to follow the general outline of what we're doing—don't get hung up on things like solving particular equations for the time being—and you'll see that most of what we're doing is breaking the problem down into tiny pieces that we know how to deal with. Ready? Okay. Let's start being destructive!

• Figure out what the problem is asking.

This part is clear. We want to find the area of the circle. Our final answer will have units of ft2 since we can see from the problem that all dimensions are measured in feet. There's a certain irony in the fact that we need to square something to arrive at the dimensions of a circle, don't you think? No? Not a fan of exponent/shape humor? Wow, we're really striking out today.

• Solve the problem.

This is the involved part. Before diving in, let's devise a general plan of attack. Battles tend to go better if you have a plan of attack. If you run onto the field waving your mace about, bad things can happen. Also, why are you still using a mace? It's the 21st century.

We want the area of the circle. If we have the radius, we can find the area. We can find the radius of the circle using the triangle because the hypotenuse of the triangle is the diameter of the circle. As you can see, this is an "A leads to B leads to C" type scenario. Like how that old lady swallowed the cow to catch the goat to catch the dog to catch the cat to catch the bird to catch the spider to catch the fly. We don't know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she'll die. Wow, this paragraph ended on a morbid note.

Okay. Here's the plan.

1. Find the hypotenuse of the triangle / diameter of the circle.
2. Find the radius of the circle.
3. Find the area of the circle.

1. Find the hypotenuse of the triangle / diameter of the circle.

If we knew x, we could use the Pythagorean Theorem to find the hypotenuse of the triangle. Rather than wallowing in the fact that we don't know it, which, quite honestly, would be less work, let's be proactive and find it. We can find x using the relationship between x and the area of the triangle.

We know the area A of a triangle is given by the formula where b and h are the base and height of the triangle. Or the "bottom" and "highness" of the triangle...whatever works for you. We know the area of this particular triangle is , and we know both b and h are equal to x, so:

Now multiply both sides by 2 to drop those gross fractions:

9 = x2

And take the square root of both sides:

x = ±3

Because x is a length, x can't be negative. You've never heard of a horse winning a race by negative 3 lengths, right? We toss out the answer x = -3 and keep x = 3.

Almost there. Now we use the Pythagorean Theorem (check your back pocket—it should be there) to find the hypotenuse of the triangle.

{hypotenuse}2 = (3)2 + (3)2 = 18

So the hypotenuse is . Again, we toss out the negative square root since it wouldn't make sense here. Because the hypotenuse and the diameter of the circle are the same, the diameter of the circle is . Isn't it ironic that the diameter of a circle is the square root of—oh, wait, we made that joke already.

2. Find the radius of the circle.

We hardly need to do anything here. In fact, try doing this part with one hand tied behind your back. You may need a friend to help with the knots. We know the diameter of the circle is , and we divide the diameter by 2 to find the radius. The radius of the circle is . Okay, now wiggle free of your binds and let's move on.

3. Find the area of the circle.

This step doesn't need much work either. We substitute the radius of the circle into the formula for the area of a circle: A = πr2.

This simplifies a bit to:

But that's as nice as it gets. Slap those units on the end to get our final answer: