How to be successful in Maths!

Zach Mbasu, Senior Consultant

5 January 2018

For me, it began in 2008 when I was a brand new “out-of school kid” maths teacher who had just started teaching in a rural remote school in Kakamega, Kenya. Since then, I have always been challenged to encourage students to understand what they learn in maths. I asked experienced teachers simple questions like “how do I use solved problems to engage students in analysing mathematical reasoning and strategies?” It would have made a great project, except it was my job and at the beginning of my career.

Looking previous years Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam data, Mathematics is the worst performed subject. We can see a huge number of students that score well in a lot of other subjects, but see overall grade brought down by mathematics. This is due to a number of reasons many of which the students cannot help but to undergo. But even then, it begs the question what can learners do to improve their scores? Being successful in school maths depends a great deal on having good study habits. There are study skills and other good habits that you can develop that will help you as a learner to be successful be it in algebra, geometry or any other topic in mathematics. Here are a few tips:

Number one, put yourself on a schedule.

Put yourself on a schedule: Make a schedule for yourself in which you set aside some time maybe one hour each day to work on maths problems, then stick to it! Don’t just complete your assignments and stop. Once you have completed the assignments given by the teacher, read the next section or work on more problems.

Gather information about available resources and help: You should anticipate that you will need extra help sometime during your study, so bring together information and resources available at your home and school before you need them. These could be approachable teachers, study groups, friends good at certain topics, textbooks, online practice among others.

Pay special attention to maths problems you struggle with most. Do whatever it takes to master them.

Photograph via Unsplash

Find your mistakes and correct them: As a student, I was told this one several times by Mr Wafula, my high school maths teacher. Always check your answers against answers in the back of the textbook. When you make a mistake find out why and how to correct it. Making mistakes is part of learning mathematics!

Organising your work is important: Your working should look like the work you see in maths textbooks and the work your maths shows on the board or in class. The steps you follow should imitate the work of your classmate who has been successful and always getting every problem given by your teacher, Simply imitate success! Also, make a list of problems that you struggle with most. Pay special attention to these types of problems and spend extra time working with them. Instead of telling yourself in advance that you can’t do word problems, decide to do whatever it takes to master them. Then take each step at a time.

I agree that sometimes our maths lessons can be boring and I will address this in another post. That said, as a learner train yourself to be attentive. Pay attention to the instructions that the teacher gives and also instructions that accompany a maths problem. Many mistakes can be avoided if we pay attention or if you simply read the directions.

“A low grade on a test or quiz is simply a signal that some re-evaluation of your study habits needs to take place.”

Find creative ways to check your work: Be aware that your intuition may not always lead you in the right direction while working on a maths problem. For example, from time to time you find yourself in a situation in which you would like to apply a property or a rule, but you are unsure it applies. You can always test a property or statement by substituting numbers for variables.

Be focused: Don’t dwell on questions and worries about selected topics that can become an excuse for not doing well. If you want to learn and do well in your final exams then you must succeed in maths. Focus your energy and efforts toward success, rather than distracting yourself from your goals. If you let setbacks keep you from your goal to do well in maths, then the chickens will come home to roost soon. A low grade on a test or quiz is simply a signal that some re-evaluation of your study habits needs to take place. Set out to ‘elewa’ and master the maths content, no matter what it takes.

Finally, working with students of all ages has convinced me that being stuck is an honourable state and an essential part of improving in mathematical thinking. However, to get the most out of being stuck, it is not enough to think for a few minutes and then read on. Take time to ponder the question or problem, and continue only when you are convinced that you have tried every possible alley. Time taken to ponder the question and to try several approaches is time well spent. A great deal more can be learned from an unsuccessful attempt than from a problem which is quickly resolved, provided you think about it earnestly, making use of techniques suggested by your teacher or in the book, and reflect on what you have done.

Your mathematical thinking can be improved by practice with reflection. Mathematical thinking helps in understanding other subjects and the world around you. If you elewa what you are learning in maths, then you can think mathematically!

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