Conquering Math

  • You can’t do well in math without working hard. You have to have the dedication, the perseverance, the desire and the willingness to do what it takes.

    – Meredith Many, High School Math Department Chair

    “I was on the edge of failing,” recalls 18-year old Nathan, I didn’t do any of my homework. I would try it sometimes and then I would just give up because it was completely over my head.”

    Nathan is taking A-P calculus but that doesn’t mean math is easy for him.

    “There are plenty of times where I just flat out say, ‘I can’t do it,’” he says.

    Millions of kids struggle with math. One reason is that it is cumulative- one concept builds on the next.

    “If you miss one piece along the way and you don’t have that connection to make, then the next time through it doesn’t quite work, and the next time through it doesn’t quite work… and it builds up,” explains Meredith Many, a high school math department chair.

    One missing link can stunt a student’s math growth but a tutor, a new teacher, or a fresh teaching approach can help many students get back on track.

    “I’ve seen students hear the material in a different way and get it… writing instead of hearing or getting a handout that presents it in a different way,” says Many.

    She says another reason kids do poorly in math is that, unlike any other subject in school, too often society – even parents-  give kids permission not to do well.

    “Somehow it’s okay not to know math very well and people confess it so easily,” says Many.

    Many says math isn’t easy for anyone, even the smartest kids, and the key is perseverance.

    “You can’t do well in math without working hard. You have to have the dedication, the perseverance, the desire and the willingness to do what it takes,” she says.

    With hard work, in just one semester, Nathan has gone from “almost failing” to a “B” average.

    “When I don’t understand something and I’ve been struggling with it for a long time and finally it hits, it’s an amazing experience,” he says.

    Math Anxiety

    The next time your child says they are scared of math, they may be being more honest than you think, according to Marlene Robinson, a consultant for Connected Math. Robinson believes that the fear of mathematics has become a “widespread national problem.” She also believes “the negative attitudes and beliefs that people hold about mathematics have seriously limited them, both in their daily lives and in their long-term options.” Many companies are looking for employees who can reason, think critically and are very good at problem-solving. Therefore, parents, teachers and society in general need to emphasize the importance of math and do a better job helping elementary and high school students understand it, Robinson says.

    Research has shown that students with parents who are involved and interested in their schoolwork tend to do better in school. This can be especially important in the area of mathematics, which is notoriously hard for students. Jan Crofoot, a teacher with the Peel School District in Ontario, Canada, has developed a list of tips for how you can help your child succeed in math.

    Be positive about math

    • Express confidence in your child’s ability to succeed in math.
    • Help your child see errors as opportunities for learning.
    • Share positive math memories from your past.

    Make attendance a priority

    • Schedule appointments and vacations outside of school time.
    • In case of an absence, ensure your child has a reliable “study buddy” to collect handouts and relay assignment information.
    • Encourage your child to make direct contact with the teacher upon return.

    Encourage organization

    • Ensure appropriate equipment is easily accessible (sharp pencils, erasers, ruler, protractor, compass, calculator, hole punch, etc.).
    • Encourage your child to organize paper in binders and backpacks on a regular basis. Loose sheets should be titled, dated and organized chronologically in divided sections of a binder.

    Connect mathematics to daily life

    • Ask your child to estimate grocery bills, change, tax, tips, measurements, traveling distances and times and the quantity of paint or carpet needed for a room.
    • Talk about the ways in which you use mathematics in your job and daily life and about mathematics in the newspaper (sports statistics, stock prices, math puzzles, graphs, etc.).
    • Seize every opportunity to calculate mentally and talk about the process involved.

    Stay informed

    • Ask about math in school – What topics are being discussed? What’s for homework? What’s interesting?
    • Read the curriculum documents for your child’s grade.

    Ensure the basic facts are mastered

    • Play family games to add excitement to repetitive practice. You can play:
      • Card games – Cribbage, etc.
      • Board games –Chess, Backgammon, Mastermind, Mancala
      • Computer games –Tetris, Cubis, Earthquake

    Be supportive during homework completion

    • Encourage your child to write down a solution to each question – even if he/she is not sure it is correct.
    • Check to see that all questions and all parts to the questions are complete.
    • Suggest corrections be made in pen and ensure corrections are made.
    • If no homework is assigned, review and reorganize previous work.
    • Be resourceful when stuck:
      • Reread the problem out loud – check the meaning of math terms.
      • Highlight important information in the problem.
      • Look for examples of similar solutions in texts and notes.
      • Break the problem into parts.
      • Discuss alternative approaches.
      • Take a break and try again later.
      • Phone a friend.
      • Look for information related to the topic on the Internet.

    Help your child develop an assignment action plan

    • Begin immediately and have a time schedule.
    • If any portion of the assignment seems confusing, clarify with the teacher immediately.
    • Divide lengthy assignments into parts.
    • Follow instructions – if it is to be submitted in pencil, ensure this is done.
    • Proofread math – suggest your child ask him/herself:
    • Have I made proper and effective use of mathematical terminology?
    • Have I used mathematical tools to ensure precision?
    • Have I included correct units where required?
    • Have I answered the question that was asked? Would someone else understand my solution process as it is written?
    • Have I completed all parts of the assignment?
    • Does my solution make sense?

    Support active study techniques

    • Clarify exact content of test as soon as a date is assigned and clear up uncertainties.
    • Spread studying out over several days.
    • Write, talk, sing – use variety to consolidate and retain information.
    • Make study notes so that the material to be learned is in a condensed version.
    • Rework questions from homework or assignments that caused difficulty in the past and check solutions.


    • American Mathematical Society
    • High School Math Hub
    • The Math Forum
    • The Brookings Institute
  • Video Overview

    Today, more middle school students than ever have been pushed into taking algebra and geometry. And yet the Brookings Institute reports the number of these kids failing math has more than tripled since 2000. The report suggests that students can’t take on algebra if they haven’t yet mastered multiplication and fractions and decimal points.

    Print Support

    Share this Link