Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do?

Step 1: Cry
Step 2: Give up
Step 3: Move on

This is the three-step process many students go through when they get stuck on a math homework assignment, test, or project.  Not only is this process not effective, it is counter productive.  It fosters a fear and hatred of math and leads to more future frustrations.  Below I have the PRODUCTIVE and EFFECTIVE three-step method that I teach to my students.

Step 1: Cry

It is ok to be stuck, frustrated, angry, and disappointed.  Everyone has these feelings.  Math is hard for everyone at some point, but what really matters is how you work through the difficult problems to learn and grow from them.

Step 2: Break it Down

No, I’m not talking about dancing, though that may help getting over step 1.  I’m talking about breaking down the problem into smaller parts.  Long word problems and multi-step problems overwhelm many students. 
For long word problems look for my post How to Tackle a Word Problem.
For multi-step problems, ask yourself, “What do I need to know first” or “What do I need to do first”.  Taking it one step at a time turns a long, difficult problem into smaller, less difficult problems.

Step 3: Use Resources

If you’re done crying and you can’t figure out how to break it down use your resources!  Many students don’t realize all the tricks they have in their math bag.  Pull those suckers out!!  Here are some resources you can use:
  • Math notes – Take good notes in class or else these are pretty useless!
  • Textbook – Even if your teacher doesn’t “follow” the book, it is a great resource!  Look to the glossary or table of contents for your topic.
  • Family – If your mom or dad can’t help you, maybe a brother, sister, cousin, uncle, or aunt can!
  • Classmates – Get the contact information from some of your classmates at the beginning of the school year so you can ask them for help.  I love it when students work together on their homework, but make sure everyone understands each problem.
  • Teacher – Go to the teacher’s office hours or schedule a meeting during lunch, before school, or after school.  Just remember to give them one business day to return your call or email.
  • Tutor – If you are stuck on one problem you can call, email, or skype your tutor!  They will be happy to help you; it’s their job!  If you get stuck often, it might be time to schedule tutoring sessions more frequently. If you need a tutor, look HERE
  • Internet – Look HERE for some great online resources.

The Internet should be your LAST resource.  Remember, the Internet doesn’t know what class you are in; it may suggest a solution that is a higher level math then your enrolled class.  Also, the Internet offers MANY distractions and will likely end up in you giving up on math and playing Candy Crush for hours (not that that’s ever happened…)  I would suggest working down the aforementioned list until you find your solution.

Students: What do you do when you don’t know what to do?  How do you solve difficult problems?
Tutors and teachers: How to you encourage students to not give up and to find solutions to difficult problems?

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