The study of mathematics requires an approach unlike the methods used in the study of most other subjects. Interestingly enough, many students progress to higher math levels, like algebra and geometry, without having developed the study skills necessary for success in these courses. Many also fail to realize that studying mathematics requires an approach unlike that used in their study of other subjects. The problem is compounded by secondary math teachers who are under the impression that learners at this level have already developed strong math study skills.
I certainly don’t want to insult math teachers by implying that they don’t know what study skills are necessary for success in high school mathematics courses. Of course they do! But I know that early in my teaching career, it never occurred to me that struggling students might not know how to study mathematics. Sadly, this ignorance caused me to assume that since they had made it this far, they should be ready to tackle the next math level. I was quick to attribute lack of achievement to poor work ethic and/or apathy.
Identifying Beneficial Math Study Skills
As most teachers do, I eventually began to notice some distinct differences in the ways my students approached their study of mathematics. Most of the successful pupils took notes in class, asked questions, regularly completed the homework, and reflected on their work. They were organized and engaged. Those whose work fell below the mark, typically did not demonstrate most of these habits. Often, they were genuinely frustrated because they didn’t understand why merely listening in class and doing the homework was not bringing them success.
Over the years, I have discovered some strategies to develop in my young mathematicians to give them the tools they need to succeed in their increasingly complex math classes. Remember, these skills and habits are very familiar to you, but their importance may not be so obvious to your young learners. Whenever it’s appropriate, I recommend that you emphasize the following skills in your class’s daily activities. Also, consider making copies of this list of strategies to hand out to each pupil. Display them in the classroom as a reminder or quick reference.
Strategies of Successful Mathematicians
Here are the math-learning strategies that I give to my pupils each year:
- Take notes in class as the teacher lectures and works examples. You may think you can remember everything, but chances are you won’t. Refer to your notes later when you do your homework, and again when you study for quizzes and exams.
- Ask questions. If you’re having trouble understanding a concept or procedure, chances are good that others in class are experiencing similar confusion. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
- Do every homework assignment, and do it as soon after class as possible so the new material is still fresh in your mind. As you work, think about the new concepts you’re using and how they apply to each problem. Refer to your class notes and textbook.
- Draw diagrams and sketches as needed when solving homework problems, and look up the definition of the terms you don’t know. Put a star, question mark, or some other notation in the margin beside any problem that you don’t understand as a reminder to ask about it during the next class meeting.
- Try to review a little before each class. Take just a few minutes to look over the homework you’ve already done, review your notes, and glance over the lesson and examples in the textbook. Spending just five to ten minutes doing this before each class meeting will help reinforce your understanding and remind you of any questions you need to ask about the assignment.
- Work with a partner or a group. Working together to solve problems helps everyone in the group learn and retain the math concepts.
- Understand that mathematics often takes hard work. Many people don’t understand a concept the first time they are introduced to it. It usually takes perseverance and practice.
- Don’t fall behind. Each math lesson builds on previous lessons. Missing out on one or two concepts can cause you to have trouble later in the course.
Additional Resources for Developing Strong Math Study Skills:
Tips for Taking Tests
This is a good reference sheet of eight tips for test-takers to use every time they take a quiz or exam. The tips apply to tests in all subjects, but are especially good for mathematics assessments.
Developing Critical Thinking Skills
Use this activity to help develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are so essential in mathematics. The activity presents a lengthy narrative and requires participants to apply six basic problem-solving principles to answer a single question.
Strategies for Solving Problems
An excellent resource for introducing or reinforcing step-by-step strategies for solving problems. The included activities emphasize analysis, organization, trial-and-error, and other important components of how to attack a problem. Five practice problems and two activities are included to help develop critical thinking