Math: Pen vs Pencil

Many math students are given strict instructions by their teachers to do all their work in pencil. I disagree.

The advantage of doing work in pencil is that:

  • it is easier to erase, so students are less likely to be paralyzed by “I am not sure this is correct, so I don’t dare write it down”

The disadvantages of working in pencil are that: Continue reading Math: Pen vs Pencil

11 Ways To Do Better In Math

1) Reflect and Summarize
at the end of each class, at the end of each week, at the end of each month. Review your notes and/or think back over the material that has been covered, then decide which skills or ideas you think are most important. Summarize the material you are learning as concisely as you can, because summarizing helps you learn. Identify any skills or ideas that you are not confident about. Write your reflections and summarizations as part of your notes, with reminders about what needs more work.

2) Use scrap paper
Using scrap paper removes a source of anxiety when Continue reading 11 Ways To Do Better In Math

Studying to Understand vs Studying to Memorize

A number of historically “good” math students seem to reach a point during their High School years where their feeling of mastery starts to fade away. While teachers usually expect more from a student with each passing year, this alone does not explain the frustration these students experience. I believe it arises because a familiar study habit, memorization, is no longer enough to assure mastery.

My experience

I used to read a math or science textbook in pretty much the same way I read anything: as quickly as I could. In fact, for math I often skipped the reading entirely as I had been shown how to do the new types of problems in class, so all I had to do was sit down and follow the procedure I had been shown – no need for all the verbiage.

However, this approach stopped working when I got to college. If my notes from lecture did not help me figure out how to solve a problem, I had to rely on the text in the textbook for almost the first time. I learned that “believing I understood everything that happened in class” was a very different thing from being able to solve the problems assigned for homework.

After skimming through my math text, I often found that  Continue reading Studying to Understand vs Studying to Memorize

Ten Skills Every Student Should Learn

A recent eSchool News article by Meris Stansbury lists ten skills cited by its readers as being most important for today’s students to acquire:

  1. Read
  2. Type
  3. Write
  4. Communicate effectively, and with respect
  5. Question
  6. Be resourceful
  7. Be accountable
  8. Know how to learn
  9. Think critically
  10. Be happy

The list is interesting to ponder. I would not argue that any skills on the list should be dropped, however I suspect we could have endless debates about what order to list them in or how to best group them. I am happy to note that all of the skills are beneficial in studying just about any subject or discipline.

There are a few additional skills that I would advocate adding to, or being more explicit about in the above list:

Uncover the Hidden Game

The title of this posting is the title of a chapter in “Making Learning Whole”, by David Perkins (2009), which I mentioned in my previous posting.  I recommend it highly.

What is the “hidden game” in High School mathematics? What mindsets, approaches, techniques, etc. do those comfortable with the work asked of them rely upon, yet perhaps neglect to Continue reading Uncover the Hidden Game

Learn the Game of Learning

The title of this posting is the title of a chapter in “Making Learning Whole”, by David Perkins (2009). Of the books on education I have read to date, this is the first that resonated completely with me.  He describes the way I try to teach, and more – thus giving me much to reflect upon.  I recommend it highly.

The list of skills related to “the game of learning” I see as being most important for math and science students to acquire, and therefore worth devoting some time to teaching explicitly over the course of the school year (since they are also more generally applicable) are:

  • What is it you need to learn: a concept, a skill, or a fact? Concepts can often require thought, and time spent discussing them with others while being watchful for subtleties. Skills often require repetition and varying levels of difficulty. Facts can sometimes be obvious if they are based on an underlying concept; if the facts are not obvious, search for a way to link them to one or more concepts or themes, then practice retrieving them along with related information.
  • Frustration is a normal part of the learning process, one which can often lead to greater understanding and retention once you have worked your way through it. Expect to become Continue reading Learn the Game of Learning

Equivalence Deserves More Attention

Most students taking courses in Algebra or higher seem quite comfortable with the idea of “equivalent fractions”: improper or unsimplified fractions all of which evaluate to the same decimal value. An example would be


To create such fractions, multiply whatever fraction you wish to start with by 1 (the multiplicative identity) in the form of a fraction whose numerator and denominator are the same:

\dfrac{2}{3}\cdot \dfrac{2}{2}=\dfrac{4}{6}=0.\overline{666}

\dfrac{2}{3}\cdot \dfrac{6}{6}=\dfrac{12}{18}=0.\overline{666}

The key concepts here are that
a) an infinite number of equivalent fractions can easily be created, and
b) while all these equivalent fractions sure look different, they all represent the same decimal value or simplified fraction.

Turning to algebra, the very similar concept of “equivalent equations” is helpful in Continue reading Equivalence Deserves More Attention