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Ask an Expert: Seven strategies for high school math

Cherry Creek math teacher Carrie Heaney shares seven suggestions with a dad who says his ninth-grade son is ill-prepared for advanced math in high school.

Q. It seems our area middle school did not adequately prepare our ninth-grade son for advanced math. Is this a common phenomenon and what can we do about it now? My son is completely overwhelmed by the daily homework demands in advanced geometry. I don’t think the grading criteria, or the attention to study habits, was as strong as it needed to be in eighth grade.

A. Transitions are tough for students. The transitions from elementary to middle school and then from middle school to high school are often times where students struggle and need to evaluate and change the way they are approaching their studies. Usually, the approach to instruction in the classes they are taking has changed.

Advanced geometry comes with a faster pace and an often increased homework load. At some point in a student’s mathematical career, they come across a class that requires them to rethink how they approach and study for that class.

Below are some suggestions that may help your son as he transitions to high school and adjusts to the new learning that he is taking on:

Three homework tips

1. Create a study appointment that occurs daily. It is important to identify a chunk of time that will allow for work to be completed. A recommendation I’ve worked from is 10 minutes for every grade level, so a ninth-grader should set aside at least 90 minutes a night for homework. If your son has several advanced classes, this time may need to be adjusted to meet the demand of the classes. By creating an appointment, it allows the student to plan and organize their time. If all assignments are completed before the 90 minutes is up, then the students should review notes or work on longer-term assignments.

2. Complete homework and review notes. During the study appointment, students should complete the homework they were assigned. Andthey should find time to review the work/notes that were completed in class, so that they can clarify what they learned. One way to make sure that this is not just a skimming of the notes is to write a few summary statements about what the notes/work were about on the back of the page. If the notes/work aren’t clear enough for summary, then writing a few questions that would help the student clarify what it was that they were supposed to gain from the notes/work would be a good next step. This allows the student to practice writing good questions, and also provides questions they can ask the following day in class.

3. Don’t struggle too long. When completing homework assignments, if there is a problem that is confusing or cannot be solved, it is important not to spend large amounts of time struggling. Instead, take the time to write a question about what it is that is creating the struggle. By writing a question about what the student is struggling with, it allows them to process their own misunderstandings as well as think about what it is that they need in order to solve the problem. The next day, when a student returns to class, they are equipped with a question that they can ask right away. When a student comes to a teacher with a written question, it also shows that the student attempted the work and wasn’t just blowing off the assignment. This creates an opportunity for the teacher to support the student and not penalize them for not completing an assignment.

Four class work strategies

1. Jot down questions in class. The pace in an advanced class is often a new adjustment when a student enters high school. For a student who has done well, they often struggle with crafting a question that will support them. So you may have a student who finds that, by the time they know the question they want to ask, the class has moved onto a new topic. One way to deal with this is to create a section in their math notebook or use sticky notes to record the questions that come up, even if they don’t ask them. This allows the students to capture their thoughts and confusion somewhere, so that they can come back to them. The student has created a list of questions that are very specific and targeted when they talk to their teacher or when they go for additional support outside of class.

2. Use questions as study tool. The record of questions can also serve as a study tool. It is easier and safer as a student to review notes and ideas and focus on what you know. But by reviewing this list of questions, a student is able to visually see the areas that they struggled with and go back and make sure that they have made sense of that question prior to an assessment.

3. Set a question goal. Writing and asking questions is not easy. A way to support your student in doing this is to give them a question goal. For example, asking three questions a day in class. As a parent, you can ask your child what questions they asked in class and allow them to explain the answer to that question. By having them explain the answer, it allows the student to actually determine if they understand that answer. If they don’t, they need to reword the question to focus on the additional details they need and ask it the next day when they return to class.

4. Check with school for extra support. There are many resources and support tools that could support your child if you are looking for additional books/tools. However, before buying a resource, I’d check with your school as often there are some in the library that a student can check out or the teacher may have a few that they could share with you and your student.

Once these habits and practices are in place, they should support your son as he learns geometry. I also encourage you to speak with his teacher and see what they are seeing in terms of his areas of struggle. They will also be able to give you additional insight, outside of what you see at home, into how he is progressing as he takes on new strategies and habits to support himself as a mathematical thinker.

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