When I was a kid math was not my forte, and in eighth grade I was struggling and failing at algebra. So my mom went to the local bookstore and bought me a review book (picture the mid-1970’s version of Algebra for Dummies).
Last week I wrote about the demonstrably positive effects of longer-term studying. Kids who begin studying several days before a test and who study consistently and to the point of mastery get high grades.
This seems like a no-brainer, right? So why don’t more kids do it?
One reason is that fear and anxiety hamper people’s ability to think straight and organize themselves. (We talk a lot about executive function issues in kids, but these are problems all people of all ages experience)
As part of his research with couples, John Gottman attached heart monitors to his subjects, and he discovered that when people become emotionally agitated, their systems “flood” with adrenaline and their heart rates elevate. A heart rate above 95 beats per minute signals that a person’s listening, planning and reasoning skills have broken down.
I do, sometimes, when I know I’m going to have to teach a topic that lies at the outer boundary of my own expertise.
So, yes, I am feeling anxious right now, because this afternoon I’m going to have to help a student with some pretty sophisticated trigonometry (including those dreaded “ferris wheel” problems). It’s stuff I don’t do every day…and it’s hard!
Here’s how I’m coping:
And for years and years I worked hard to come up with sound explanations for WHY we need algebra, WHY chemistry is important, etc, etc…
Kids would listen and then look dissatisfied.
One day the lightbulb went on for me: I’m answering the wrong question!
Test preparation is big business these days, and I’m part of it.
I’ve been prepping kids for the SAT, ACT, PSAT, SSAT, ISEE and other tests, for decades now.
Is test prep a plus? Or does it do more harm than good?
In my opinion, it depends on how the preparation is done.
Is the goal merely to achieve a higher score? One common approach is to teach tricks and shortcuts, which supposedly produces higher scores quickly. JenBee wrote about how harmful this sort of coaching was for her:
I received this thoughtful response from to my last post about standardized tests and your child’s self-esteem:
I’m 36 years old and I’ve been harboring bitterness about the PSAT since I was 17. We took it in 10th grade and I got a really high score. This made me feel like the bar was set pretty high. Well, when I took it again in 11th grade… I bombed.
For most kids, these scores (and other standardized test scores, such as the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, ACT, etc) hit hard, whether they’re bad or good! And it’s important to give kids the perspective and support they need to turn their results into personal empowerment, and not discouragement.
I’ve spent this week rehearsing the Big SAT Math Ideas with my students. Here’s a list of some of the most important.
Pass these last-minute refreshers along to any high-schooler you know taking the SAT on Saturday, May 1 (tomorrow!)
(And, take a look yourself and see how much you remember)
Many schools use a spiral review approach in their curricula. In the British system, for example, kids get one trimester each of biology, chemistry and physics every year, instead of taking these courses separately over full years.
Math texts always include review of the previous year’s skills before launching into the new work. Homework, summer review packets, mid-terms and finals, are all examples of spiral review.
There are unique challenges when applying a spiral approach to math learning. Math, unlike other subjects, is hierarchical. Concepts build on top of earlier concepts, and if any layer is weak the next layer will be even shakier.
Spiral review in math, therefore, MUST be individualized in order to be effective, and it must dig back to foundational concepts and reinforce these core understandings.
Unfortunately, math curricula which use a spiral approach often befuddle students by touching too lightly on new topics and then flitting away before students can get a handle on them. Students are often left with only vague notions of the new concepts, plus feelings of confusion and distress. No one likes to be taught something new and then left with the feeling that they “didn’t get it.” These kinds of experiences can contribute to math anxiety, disliking of math, and negative self-image.
Here are some ways you can use the spiral review technique to help your student or your own child: