Developing Math Skills

Why Are Math Study Skills Important?

Mathematical principles and concepts have become a part of almost every area of work. Knowing these principles will help you succeed in both school and work. Math study skills can help you learn the mathematical concepts, skills, and principles so important to other parts of your life.  Additionally, math study skills are tools that can serve you well in college, work, and other learning situations.

What Can I Do to Develop and Improve My Math Study Skills?

Do Assigned Homework Teachers assign homework as a way to help you learn and practice topics from class. Doing homework when it is assigned helps you keep up with class topics. Putting homework off often causes problems to pile up. In no time, the problems can seem overwhelming.  Doing homework regularly helps you learn class topics as they are taught.  Also, do your math homework when you are awake and alert. If math is difficult for you, then do it first, before you get tired.

Talk With Your Teacher

Your teachers can be an excellent resource. In addition to knowing the subject matter thoroughly, your teachers were also successful students.  This combination of skills makes them especially well-suited to helping you improve your math study skills. Ask your teachers how they studied when they were in your grade. Their years of teaching may enable them to suggest good ways to study particular topics.

If you talk to your teacher about a particular problem, remember to be as specific as possible. The more you know about your problem areas, the better your teacher can help you. If you aren't able to be very specific, your teacher may be able to help you identify your problem areas.  Keeping a math journal (sample at right) can also help you identify your specific problems.

Keep A Math Journal

Since different people learn in different ways, you may find some study skills which work well for you and others which don't. A first step in developing math study skills is figuring out where you have problems. One way to figure this out is to keep a math journal. To start a math journal, use another piece of paper to make notes about problems which are difficult for you as you do your homework. Be as specific as possible in your journal. For instance, instead of writing I can't do number three, you might write, On number three, I could simplify the equation, but I couldn't solve it because I didn't know what to do with the negative numbers. This may sound like a lot of work, but it will help you understand where you have problems and can be of help when talking to your teacher.

In addition, you may want to make notes about what you learned from or about the assignment, what you do understand, what questions you have, and what you think would help you understand the assignment or problem.  These topics can further focus your studying and contact with your teacher.

Learn How To Approach Math Problems

It is important to learn how to think about and understand math problems.   Sometimes problems are hard to solve because it is hard to understand what is being asked. Try asking yourself the following questions when you get to a difficult math problem:  Do I need all the information given in the problem? Do I need more information than is given in the problem? How is this problem like other problems I have seen? Can I use the same strategy on this problem that I used on another problem?  If the numbers in the problem were smaller or different (maybe even and not odd numbers), could I solve it? If so, try putting them in the problem and solving this easier problem first.  Will drawing a picture or making a chart make it easier to solve this problem?
The better you understand the problem and what it is asking, the better you will be able to solve it.

Review The Material

Another way to improve study skills is to review how new material relates to math you already know. For example, you might look at how geometry relates to algebra. Or you might think about how a new topic within business math relates to an old topic in business math. The more connections you can see between new material and old material, the better you will understand new topics. To help review, you can ask yourself questions like:   What does this topic have to do with the topic most recently covered in class?   Is this like anything I've done before?  How did we get from the last topic to this one?  What part of this topic is new to me?

Make Sure You Understand The Words 

Math uses special words to mean specific things. Sometimes, words are used differently in math than in regular language. The result is that some words may be unfamiliar to you. For example, prime, set, and volume, are words that mean something different in math than they usually do. Understanding math terms can help you understand topics. If a word used by your teacher or in a book is unfamiliar, ask your teacher to explain it to you. The best way to understand the vocabulary of math is to put special or new terms into your own words. If you can explain something in your own words, you are more likely to understand it.

Keep At It!

Another good study skill is to simply keep at it. One thing that distinguishes mathematicians is that they continually work at difficult problems. Often, they'll sketch a graph or a chart to help see the problem. They may start solving the problem one way and then try it another way. In math, thinking often involves doing - the more you do, the more likely you are to discover the answer. Your teacher probably does the same thing in class in response to a question - he or she probably writes on the board when explaining a problem. The same kind of activity can work for you, too.

Pay Attention to Your Anxious Feelings

Some people feel like they are simply not able to learn math. They may have been unsuccessful in learning math earlier or may have been told that they could not do math. This is called math anxiety.  Math anxiety has to do with feelings, not abilities. Because someone feels like they cannot do math does not mean that they are unable to do math.  The feelings can get in the way, though. For instance, if you see a problem that is difficult for you, you may unknowingly tell yourself that you can't do it. A key to getting over math anxiety is to figure out what is going on. You need to know when your feelings occur before you can manage them.

Similar to the math journal mentioned earlier, you can do an exercise to help identify what your feelings are and when they happen. When doing your homework, draw a line down the middle of your page. On one side, do your problems. On the other side, make notes about your feelings and reactions as you go along. If you feel good because you were able to do a problem, write it down. If you feel nervous because you don't remember how to do something, write it down. This is similar to the math journal, except that this exercise concentrates on your feelings, which are the source of the math anxiety.

Since thinking in math is related to doing, this exercise allows you to keep working even if you are stuck on a problem. By writing about your feelings and reactions to the math problem, your mind is still actively working. After doing this exercise for a period of time, you will learn to tune in to how you handle and solve math problems. You will learn to anticipate problem areas and as you write, ideas for solving the problem will come to you. This is another way of `keeping at it.'

Try These Tips

If you have assigned reading for your homework, DO IT! You may pick up something from the reading that was not clear in class.

Ask questions when you have them. Ask them in class, ask your teacher, ask friends or family members who might be able to help.

Try doing homework in groups. Sometimes, you can learn a great deal from working through problems with other students. The point here is to do your own homework with the support of thinking problems through with the group, not merely to give or get the answers from others.

Give yourself enough time to study. If math takes more of your time than other homework, then plan for it; don't feel rushed.

Review your math homework before class. This will get you focused for class and will remind you of questions to ask your teacher.

Prepare for Tests

In addition to regularly doing your homework and getting help with areas which you don't understand, you can prepare for math tests by making a 1 or 2 page summary of the different kinds of problems that will be on the test. When writing the summary, describe each problem type, the steps in solving the problem, and do an example. If you are unclear about definitions and formulas, this is also a good place to write them out. This will help you identify similarities among problems and will focus your thinking on the test.

You also might want to work on problems which weren't assigned as homework. You can work on extra problems in your math book, or you can try your hand at problems in different math books. Working extra problems is good practice for almost any test.

Last, review your summary. Make sure you understand the summary and the types of problem s you have identified.

Take Tests One Step at a Time

Be sure that you have prepared thoroughly by doing and understanding homework, getting help where you need it, and writing a summary. When taking the test, stay calm and do the test one problem at a time. Make a good attempt at each problem. If you are unable to do a problem, put a check mark by it and return to it later. Do your problems in order (jumping around can break your concentration) and when you have come to the end of the test, return to those which you have checked. If you are not able to solve a problem, do as much of it as you can because you may be able to earn partial credit. A key to success in taking a test is knowing that you have prepared well.

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