Anyone who has struggled in math knows the frustration of not knowing how to go about solving a problem. Whether the math struggle comes from confusion, difficulty with numbers, and/or simple lack of motivation, the struggle is the same. Here are eight strategies that often help address some of the root causes of problems in math.
Help them visualize
Many students who have difficulty working with numbers will benefit from seeing the problem in a different way. These students do much better with pictures, diagrams, and charts than simple equations, number sentences, and written-out word problems. Sometimes it helps to allow (or encourage) students to draw problems out themselves, and sometimes they do better when you provide visuals for them.
Teach the ‘why’
Teaching students the underlying logic behind math formulas and processes is always important. However, students who struggle to remember formulas and steps especially benefit from developing a deep understanding of the “why.” While this takes time—often a considerable amount of it—it is well worth the investment for students to feel empowered with understanding the reasons behind each mathematical process.
Lots of students benefit from seeing and practicing skills more than once. Reviewing skills is a natural and necessary part of working toward mastery of any skill. Students with dyscalculia or other math-related learning disabilities will need even more frequent review of previously learned skills.
Talk it out
Letting students talk about math with you and with each other is a great way to differentiate the math process, and can help them express their thinking in a way that doesn’t require them to labor over writing or organizing thoughts on the page. Conversely, hearing others think through their math process can expose students to new insights and ways of thinking.
Show, don’t tell
With the best of intentions, many of us think that after the initial modeling of a skill, students should practice solving problems themselves. When they need help, we may give them verbal prompts or hints about what to do next, but we wouldn’t dream of doing the work for them. While of course it’s true that students need opportunities for practice in order to gain confidence and mastery, students who find math challenging will likely need those skills modeled over and over again, sometimes over the course of days, weeks, or even the school year.
One trait virtually all struggling math students share is a lack of confidence in math. The best way to help build their self-esteem and motivation is by always focusing first on their strengths. Notice progress they’ve made, no matter how small, and make a point of celebrating it. Ensure that your enthusiasm is authentic and doesn’t seem forced—they’ll notice.
Give students of all ages opportunities to practice math concepts using hands-on tools and manipulatives. This strategy is often associated mainly with younger students, but older students can benefit from hands-on math practice, too. Kinesthetic learners exist in all grades and at all ages, not just early Elementary. So don’t shy away from using manipulatives with older students.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of peer-to-peer language. While of course you are the expert in delivering instruction the first time students learn a skill (as well as many subsequent times), students often find ways of explaining and reinforcing concepts that tend to click with peers more quickly than our explanations can. This can be done discreetly through proximal partnerships and grouping. That is, by placing students together who work within a similar, but not exactly equal, level of ability. These groups and partnerships should not be presented as opportunities for re-teaching. Instead, students should be given tasks and assignments to work on together that allow for authentic, deep learning to take place.