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:
- Revisit / review material periodically to refine and strengthen cognitive connections
- Practice regularly, not just right after the lesson or right before the test (think of it as “mental weight-lifting,” building mental muscles through consistent, moderate exercise)
- Do a few review problems that now seem easy, but used to be soooo hard! Make sure you point out how tough these problems used to be, and how much progress has been made.