Department of Earth Science |Northeastern Illinois University
Hints for Solving Quantitative Problems                                                 Laura L. Sanders, Ph.D.

Solving numerical problems is a critical aspect of scientific work.  Your calculations must be neat and carefully done, and must be accompanied by explanations of the computations.  Here's how to do well on solving numerical problems:

w Start with lots of clean scratch paper.
w Write down information given; write what you need to find.
w Solve the problem in a logical sequence of steps that take you from what you know to what you want to know.
w Convert units as necessary.  For more on units, see p. 19-20 in Fetter's Applied Hydrogeology textbook.
w At each step, write in words what process that step involves.
w Check to be sure your answer is reasonable, that you included units of measurement, and that the answer is in a convenient unit and order of magnitude.
w Check the number of significant figures (digits) in the answer.  For more on significant figures, see p. 18-19 in the Fetter textbook.
w Then, copy your work onto a clean sheet of paper.
w Write no unexplained numbers or words on the paper--everything must be explained in words.
w Make it easy to read: leave lots of blank space, and put a box around the final answer.
w Start each problem on a new sheet of paper.
w On every graph, label each axis, including units of measurement; give title and date; and write chapter and problem number.
w Some answers are best given in tables. If your answer includes a table, make it neat.  Each column needs a heading; the heading must include units of measurement.  If applicable, show a sample calculation after the table.
w Write your name on every page.
w Staple or clip pages together, and trim ragged edges.
w Write the units of measurement at every step in the solution.  This really is important!

Department of Earth Science | Northeastern Illinois University

© 2005 Laura L. Sanders.  Last updated August 29, 2005.