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September 28, 2010

Improving Your Math Skills

Nick Diaz

As the school year begins to settle into its second month, many parents are already worrying about their (and their children’s) least favorite subject – mathematics. This is true across the board in the K-12 sequence, whether elementary, middle, or high school.


Students take many subjects in school, of which the most important are, obviously, reading/writing and mathematics. Math is what I teach, at the middle school level.


Students can pass many exams, tests, and quizzes in school, but one of the most important is mathematics; it’s easy to see why.


Colleges and employers highly value the results from math exams. A top grade in mathematics demonstrates a person’s ability and willingness to think clearly, follow instructions, solve problems, and work under pressure. These are all desirable traits in a future employee or higher-education student.


This is the reason the National Society of Professional Engineers has been sponsoring the MATHCOUNTS Foundation since 1983. Engineers are eager to perpetuate their trade, and be eventually replaced by clear-thinking, instruction-following problem solvers who work, and perform, under pressure.


So, every student needs to pass math, crack the tests, and get the grades, the higher the better.


Fine. But how?


If a person is not naturally gifted at math, what can he or she do to improve exam scores?


Answer: More than many of us realize. Despite its reputation, mathematics is a remarkably human subject; that means a person can learn math like anything else, provided the approach is the correct and appropriate one. So here are three quick human tips to help students in their math studies. (I’m addressing individual students, whether at the elementary, middle, high school, or college level; hence, my use of the second person.)


1. Develop your PMA:


Yes, a Positive Mental Attitude does make a huge difference to your grades, and yet, without realizing it, you are mentally beating yourself up with negative phrases like "I can't do this," or "I'm no good at math.”


You need to tell this negative little voice to be quiet. Better still, drown it out with some positive self-talk. Say to yourself phrases like "I CAN DO MATH. I overcome many challenges every day. I can find a parking space at Frederick Community College. I can learn some simple math techniques."


Remind yourself that math is all about solving problems, and you've solved plenty of those in your time. You already have the characteristics of the person who is "good at math.”


Remember there is always a solution.


2. It's not "all or nothing:"


Closely related to negative thinking is the dreaded "all or nothing" thinking, where you see yourself either as a success in math – or an abject failure.


Math tends to breed this type of thinking thanks to its perennial focus on getting the correct answer. In math, you're either right or you're wrong.


Fair enough, but when you are learning the subject, ease up on yourself. Realize you are not a binary switch that has two states of "on" or "off." Rather, you are a human being on a journey; you are neither at the starting line nor at the finishing line, but somewhere in between.


The point is that you are always moving forward, and you will get to the finish line if you'll just keep going.


A negative mind says "I can't do math."


A positive mind says "Okay, I might not understand this topic completely, at least not yet. But I am getting there and I will understand it."


3. Give yourself time:


Nobody said you must understand every math lesson immediately.


But it's easy to think this way thanks to today's fast-food Burger King world. With television beaming instant successes every hour of the day, it's easy to develop a false sense of reality. Many students start their schooling believing that success should come fast and without any challenges. By contrast, substantive success is seldom easy.


So give yourself time to understand a new math concept. If you don't understand it the first time, look over the lesson again later when your brain has had time to relax.


And if you still can't make sense of the topic? Then do what smart people always do in this situation:


Get a second opinion! In other words, ask someone else for help.


Whether it's a friend, a mentor, or even an Internet search engine, it's amazing how somebody else can explain the same topic in a different way that suddenly makes perfect sense.


I know of a highly ranked college administrator, with advanced degrees in mathematics education, who regularly helps a local college student with his mathematics lessons. This administrator provides the students with a perspective that is totally different from that given by the professor in the regular classroom.


Many teachers hold tutoring sessions for students after school. I do. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I deliver the same content after school, to a small group of 8th graders, on the same topics I touched on during regular class time. Same teacher, same content, yet a different perspective, a fresh approach.


Therefore, you owe it to yourself to think positive. Keep going. Give yourself time.


These tips won't make you a 100% math student overnight; they will, however, change the way you look at mathematics. And your math grades will improve as a result. I guarantee it.


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