The Whole Equals the Sum of its Parts

By Mathnasium | Added Jun 26, 2013

Word problems can be tough even for the math-minded. The challenge lies in correctly converting words to the numbers and symbols of an equation. One method that helps is the concept that "the whole is equal to the sum of its parts." Start with these three questions:

What is the whole in this question? Is its value known or unknown?

What are the parts in this question? Are their values known or unknown?

What is the relationship between the whole and its parts? Which remains constant in the question? Which changes? How does it change?

By figuring out what are the parts and what is the whole, we can decide whether we need to perform a synthesis ("building up") or an analysis ("breaking down") to solve the problem at hand.

If the whole is unknown, then the task is to build it up from its known parts:

If the parts are equal, we multiply.

If the parts are not equal, we add.

In other words, affirming that "the whole is equal to the sum (total) of its parts."

If the whole and one or more of its parts are known, then the task is to find the remaining part(s) by breaking down the whole, using the known part(s):

If the known parts are not equal, we subtract.

If the known parts are equal, we divide.

Basically, "Each individual part is equal to the whole minus all of the other parts."

By identifying which category the problem falls under, we can designate a relationship and determine the plan of attack; this is called the whole-part method. Below are a few examples of the method in action.

Ex. #1:

A box contains some marbles. 6 of the marbles are red, 5 are green, and 14 are orange. How many marbles are in the box?

In this question, the whole (the total number of marbles) is unknown. Since the parts (the number of red, green and orange marbles) are known, we can use the Key Synthesis Concept to find the whole:

total # of marbles = (# of red) + (# of green)+ (# of orange) = 5 + 6 + 14

= 25 marbles.

Ex. #2:

A train traveled 200 miles at an average speed of 50 miles per hour. How long did the trip take?

In this question, the distance traveled is the whole and is known. In each hour the train traveled an average of 50 miles, so:

time of trip = (distance traveled) ÷ (average rate of speed)

= 200 miles ÷ 50 miles per hour = 4 hours.

Ex. #3:

Another sandbox contains 100 pounds of mixed sand, 15% of which is brown sand. The rest is white. How much white sand must be added to make the mixture only 5% brown.

In this question, there are 15 pounds (15% of 100) of brown sand. As we add white sand, the whole (the total amount of sand) changes, but the amount of brown sand remains constant (at 15 pounds).

What we want is "15 out of the (new) total" to equal "5 out of 100" (5%, the desired outcome).

We can ask the following equivalent questions,

"15 is to what number as 5 is to 100?" or?"5 out of 100 = 15 out of what number?" or "5/100 = 15/what number."

All of these methods yield the same answer: 300 pounds. Since the box already has 100 pounds of sand, 200 pounds (300 - 100) must be added.

The whole-part method allows us to identify the first step of a word problem bringing us one step closer to the solution and making math make sense.

- Larry Martinek