The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

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Day: November 14, 2008

What can I do to help my child learn mathematics?

Update: It’s amazing how much my thinking has changed since I wrote this post. I literally cringed as I read the part about homework & test scores.

One of the most common questions I am asked by parents during parent teacher conferences is, what can I do to help my child learn mathematics?  There are a variety of answers I can give to this question.

The very first thing you can do is have a positive attitude about mathematics.  Almost anyone I meet who does not use mathematics for their career tells me how hard they found it, or how much they dislike mathematics.  Your positive attitude about mathematics will rub off on your child and will help encourage them to keep trying.

Show an interest in what your child is learning.  Find out what they will be learning this year in mathematics and keep track of where they are at.  There are certain topics that everyone finds more difficult, make sure your child has the help they need for those topics.  If you move from one school to another, this information will help your son or daughter adjust to their new mathematics class.

From an early age, encourage your child to think about puzzles and problems.  Having an active imagination and a willingness to think carefully are two huge assets when doing mathematics.  Many times students struggle with mathematics because they do not know how to persevere.

Work with your child on their homework whenever possible.  This does not mean do their homework, it means help them finish it.  There is a clear relationship between finishing their homework and your child’s scores on classroom tests and assignments.

Make sure your child has their addition and multiplication tables memorized.  This can be very difficult for some children, but it is one of the few things that really should be learned by repetition.  Not having to use their calculator for every single calculation will speed up how quickly your child can work, which will lead to improved test scores.

Keep in touch with the person who teaches your child mathematics.  Make sure you are communicating with them often so that you are aware of your child’s progress in mathematics.  Strong communication between parents and teachers helps improve students’ progress.

Most of mathematics is interrelated.  There are connections between different topics which can sometimes be missed by students.  If you send your child to Kumon math, or something similar, you should be aware that these connections are not taught in these types of classes.  This time would be much better spent having your child work with a private tutor in mathematics.

Be realistic in your expectations.  Not every person is a mathematician, and therefore not every child will be a mathematician, but all children can experience success in math class with sufficient support.  Give encouragement when your child improves rather than discouraging them when they do poorly.  Set reasonable goals for your child to achieve and give rewards for their achievement.  An expression used often in North America is “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” which basically means that rewards are more effective than punishments.

If you follow these guidelines, your child should have a rewarding experience in mathematics.  Remember that the goal of a mathematics class is to encourage analytical thinking and problem solving skills.  If at the end of your child’s school career they are a critical thinker, and are willing to tackle challenging problems, then you have done a good job.

Helping students produce effective high quality projects

As secondary mathematics becomes more and more about how you find the solution to a problem and less about what the correct answer is to a problem, it becomes easier to justify assessing students using a project.

One immediate advantage of doing projects in high school mathematics is that students learn valuable job related skills, such as formatting documents properly, technical writing, and communication skills.  It is arguable that these skills are more important than the actual mathematics content we teach.

So now it becomes a question of helping students produce high quality projects that are worth your time to grade.  We as professionals need to come up with some strategies for helping our students through these projects, because if done correctly, they can be far more difficult than our most challenging topics in mathematics.

First, when assigning the project, it is helpful if you have taken the time to do it yourself.  Make sure that whatever work you are planning on giving the kids has a clear solution, and that the students in your class are capable of finding it.  This does not mean that your project can’t be open-ended, but students need to have some measure of success when working on the project.  I have made the mistake in the past of assigning a project which was much too difficult for my 10th grade students to do, and regretting it in the end.  No real learning comes from doing a project which is beyond your talent to complete.

The next thing to consider when assigning the project is the clarity of your instructions.  The first few projects you assign should be pretty doable by the students by following your instructions verbatim.  Give the students a formalized structure to follow.  It is a good idea to even give the students a template to follow.  This does not mean a ‘fill in the blanks’ style assignment, but more like giving them the following structure.

Sample project structure

You also need to give the students the same assessment criteria you will be using to grade their projects before they start working on them.  A rubric is a handy way to grade a project, so give the students a copy of the rubric you will use.  Take the time to go through the rubric, and if the project is one you have done before you might even be able to show some examples from a previous year.

Now you need to set aside at least a couple of lessons during class for the students to work on their projects.  Once the students have started on their projects and have some work, they will want to finish the projects.  They will come to you and ask for more help, but you have to give them enough time to get ‘hooked’ into the project.  Sometimes what I will do is have students collect data on some phenomena in groups, and then they work on the calculations, conclusion and evaluation of their projects individually.

Give the students enough time to finish the projects before expecting them back.  You can have a project that takes the students three weeks to finish, if you provide daily reminders of the tasks that need to be completed.  You may also want to set goals for the students to reach and remind them what stage of the project they should be at in order to complete it on time.

If the students turn in work, and it is not as high quality as you would like, take the time to analyze the work as a class.  Maybe photocopy some of the best and worst work, making sure to obscure who’s work it is (retype it if you have to) and hand it out to the students.  Discuss with the students what worked and what did not.  Let the students redo their assignment if they have to and turn it back in.  Remember that your objective is to have the student capable of producing a high quality piece of work.

Once you have done a few projects, they become easier.  The first few projects I did were nightmares to supervise, and what the students turned in ended up not being very good.  After 7 years of having students do multiple projects a year in mathematics, I now have high expectations for what the students will produce and how to help them achieve this level of work.

Here are some specific ideas you can use in your classroom for projects and the topic from mathematics they cover.

Functions and Logos – function transformations

Aunt Dot – arithmetic and geometric sequences

Threes and Ones – number patterns