MathVids Original

How to REALLY reach struggling math students

02.03.09 | 4 Comments

written by Ryan Andersen

What follows is an explanation of a highly controversial way of teaching struggling math learners that you will probably not hear very many places.  This method of teaching those who are “falling behind” will probably not be endorsed any time soon by any educational associations or picked up as cutting edge pedagogy.  Instead, many people will probably find the idea of this article heresy.  However, as a teacher of high school seniors who struggle to graph lines and simplify simple Algebraic expressions, I can say from experience that this strategy works in many cases.

So what is this secret that no one will ever tell you?  Well, instead of teaching a topic in many ways and showing alternate ways of simplifying, computing, or calculating values, show students just ONE way of doing things.  It is true that students have different learning styles and different students will learn and understand some methods better than others, but in the interest of all students, pick the one way that is most likely to make sense to the most students and only teach this one way.

First I will explain the rationale; then I’ll give some examples.  Students who have difficulty with math have trouble understanding and remembering one method of doing something.  The probability that they will listen, take notes, understand, and be able to choose intelligently among the alternate methods for the one that suits them best is very low.  Furthermore, it is highly likely that they will simply mix the methods up in their minds and attempt to do some sort of incorrect combination of them or, even worse, have no idea where to start because they have not seen any one method performed enough times.

Here are some places you may have seen this unfortunate confusion: When students are attempting to graph a line in slope-intercept form, they often forget which was to go with the slope.  For instance, a slope of 1/3 means you move up one and right three from the y-intercept; but of course, you can also move down one and left three.  Similarly, a -2/1 slope means you move down 2 and right one OR up two and left one.  What often happens when this is explained, however, is that a student tries to go DOWN two AND LEFT one for this slope.  I have found that it is much easier to ALWAYS go right, and tell students to move up if the slope is positive and down if negative.

Another example is writing an equation in slope-intercept form when given a point and a slope.  You can do this by filling in values in y = mx + b, find b, and replace b in the original equation OR you can fill in values in point-slope form: y – y1 = m(x – x1), distribute m and add y1 to get slope-intercept form.  Both methods work, but by showing both, students are usually confused rather than enlightened.  One method is not only sufficient, but it is often much more effective.  There are many more examples of such scenarios, but I think that two is enough for this article.

Now, I can hear you already screaming, “But they are clearly missing the big picture!”  Again, we are talking about students who struggle enormously with math.  Here, the goal is to give them at least one solid method of doing math problems, not to impart to them the totality and over-arching ideas of math in all their grandeur.  You especially cannot give the gift of complete knowledge to a student unwilling to accept it.  But at least we can be a bit more confident that we can get the student to be proficient in completing the problem in one way.

Although this idea of reaching struggling learners is one that will probably never be widely accepted among teaching methods experts, I truly believe it is in the interest of some of the students that we give them the best chance of taking something away from math class and have the highest likelihood of being able to use it in the future.  I have seen this method work with lower-level students much better than the alternatives, and I believe that it is time to reach these students where they are rather than reaching for where we wish they were.


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