Tim’s Top Ten Math Tips

Of all the subjects that your teen will complete in high school, math is probably the one that you as parent (or supervisor in a small Christian school) feel the least confident to help with. Following are some advice tips I would give you that will help both you and your teen be more successful working through the high school math PACES.

Keep a positive attitude

If you as the parent or supervisor have a negative attitude, it will hinder your student from doing well. If you keep saying, “I hated math,” or “I’m not good at math,” or even “you’ll never use this in real life,” you will poison your child’s thinking and set her up for failure and lack of motivation to try. If you genuinely do not feel qualified to answer your child’s math questions, then find someone who can help her, or take some time on your own to relearn the math concepts so that you can give assistance (more on that below).

Master the Facts with Drill

Students must memorize and be able quickly and confidently to recall addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. Use flash cards, games, and websites (xtramath.org is one of my favorites) to help. After years of teaching math to hundreds of students, I have come to the conclusion that most students who feel like failures are getting problems wrong because of their calculating skill and speed, not because they do not understand the concepts.

Be Patient

While students are learning new procedures, it takes time for them to become automatic. Solving problems with fractions, doing long-division, applying the rules for signed numbers, and mastering algebra procedures take time and much practice. Don’t let your eye-rolls, sighs, and body language communicate frustration. Resist saying, “Come on – we just covered this yesterday and you did several problems, you should be able to do this now!” Try making “cue cards” with types of problems and an example to follow. Encourage your student to look through the cards when he’s “stuck” and find the one that will help him work that problem.

Be aware that every small change makes a math problem look very different to them.

It took me awhile as a new teacher to learn this about students. They may confidently solve several algebra problems for “x” and then suddenly they are asked to solve for a variable, “n”, or the “x” is on the right hand side of the equation instead of the left, and suddenly it feels like a totally different problem. They need encouragement to recognize that it really is the same, or only a very slight change from what they are already comfortable solving.

Keep connecting back to what they know from earlier years, and earlier PACES.

For example, when I teach students about adding algebraic expressions that have denominators (we call them rational expressions), they have to get a common denominator first. I start by reviewing how to add simple fractions. We go over the steps of first finding a common denominator, and then changing the fractions to an equivalent form with that new denominator. I like to say, “Remember learning this back in 5th grade? Well, we are really using that same method, just with letters now!” Then I demonstrate the parallels in the steps involved.

When we encounter a new type of problem in Algebra, I like to point out all the steps in it that we have already learned and mastered and then explain that we are really only adding a small new step.

Require that they show their work and be neat.

Again, another lesson I’ve learned from my years of teaching is that many mistakes students make in math are due to carelessness, sloppy hand-writing, or trying to do too many steps in their heads. By using graph paper to write out the calculations and keeping the numbers lined up in the tidy blue boxes, they can reduce their errors significantly! At the very least, by showing their work, if they do get the problem wrong it will be much easier to find the step where the mistake was made, as opposed to having to start over.

algebra student

Don’t allow calculators too early.

Calculators are necessary at some point in Algebra I and on, and even a few math PACES in the 7th and 8th levels, but in general it is better for students to strengthen their brain “muscles” by doing as many problems with paper, pencil, and thinking. I am always surprised, too, by how blindly students trust their calculators and end up making sloppy errors (by not pressing the keys carefully, or not following the order of operations).

Refocus on the PACE instructions.

When your child says, “I don’t understand how to do this problem!”, your first response should be to ask him to read the Teaching strip out loud to you, study the examples again, and then show you how he set up the problem in his work. Always ask, “what do you think you should do?” and then wait for his response. Don’t feel obligated to give an answer. Many times students end up figuring it out on their own while trying to explain it out loud.

Draw diagrams with labels and find other ways to visualize the problem, especially story problems.

Have lots of scrap paper available to doodle on for the sketches. Some of my students have gotten “Doodle Boards” and enjoy solving the problems on them.

Why do I have to learn it then? Answer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haC8Pg6Ef1s

If you are still stuck as the parent or supervisor, don’t give up.

Don’t tell your child to skip it. Don’t tell him to look it up in the scorekey and copy the answers. If you do, you will find your child giving up much faster in the future or resorting to copying answers when stuck instead of wrestling to understand it.  Look for supplemental videos at PACESuccess.net or Khan Academy or other online sources.  First put in some effort yourself to understand how to solve the problem. Look at the scorekey yourself to see the steps and to understand how to solve it, then put the key away and teach your child. You can reach out for help at one of the ACE Homeschool or ACE Learning Center forums on Facebook.

If you model not giving up but rather persisting until you figure out how to do the problem, you will be setting a much better example for your teen – and that lesson will be more important than the answer to that particular math problem!

If you have other suggestions or helpful online resources, please add them to the comments below.

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One Comment to “Tim’s Top Ten Math Tips”

  1. Thank you so much for this article. Many good reminders and some eye openers.

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