The Power of Understanding Math

One of the most rewarding experiences we can have is when a student exceeds our expectations.

This is a story of a student who initially struggled with everything and is now being successful within an individualized course structure.  In this class, I never ‘lecture’ to a group of students.  Class time is used for studying, help, consultation, and testing; we call it the “Math Lab” though it’s not what most people mean by that phase.  The common meaning of “Math Lab” is a drop-in help center open to a variety of students in a set of math classes.  Our Math Lab is a way to take a few math courses … our math help for other classes is separate from the Math Lab.

This particular student (I’ll call him Philip) was clearly having trouble on the first day.  He did not want to use the online homework system, and that was not a problem for me.  However, he opened the book to the first page of the first section and had lots of questions about the names for types of numbers, about order of numbers on a number line, and (shortly after) about adding signed numbers.  The second day brought questions about the meaning of words in statements of properties, and about the meaning of variables.

It’s not that most students “get” these things, nor that they do not need to work on them.  What was unusual was the level of the struggle (basic) along with the sheer quantity of questions.  I never tell students what my prognosis is for them (I’m sometimes wrong) but I thought this student was going to spend weeks on every chapter.

Philip did, indeed, spend weeks on chapter 1 … a chapter about real numbers in a beginning algebra course.  Following those weeks, Philip then missed several classes due to medical problems related to his PTSD and physical injuries.  With over 6 weeks gone, Philip had only tried that first chapter test.  He was about to encounter the chapter on linear equations and applications, a classic “speed bump” for students struggling to learn algebra.

Somewhere in the month after that, however, Philip began making consistent progress.  In fact, he was getting through the third chapter faster than many students.  That progress has continued, and Philip is very likely to pass the course.

The main point is that something in the way Philip dealt with the struggle made a difference in how he succeeded in the entire course.  Philip works towards understanding everything, including ideas the are relatively minor.  He writes down lists of both vocabulary to learn and problems that he needs help with.  My guess is that his turn-around from struggle to success was caused by his hard work at understanding (and not just knowing what to do).

We all have students in this level of course who interact with the material at a low level; for them, it’s more about remembering what to do than it is about understanding.  I think Philip’s intense effort at understanding provided him with a cumulative positive improvement in the ability to learn new material.

Like most of us, I strive to have all students look for that understanding in learning mathematics regardless of the specific math course.  With other students, I end up trying to pull them someplace they have no intention of going (understanding) while Philip approached the material that way without any influence from me.

As a minor point in this post, I will point out that a struggling student such as Philip will be lost prior to getting any success.  Taking several weeks on one chapter is not an option within a fixed-pace class; instead of accumulating benefits, struggling students accumulate bad grades on assessments.  Our Math Lab, with its focus on individual learning, allows a struggling student to truly become a successful student.

A fixed-pace class has a limited capacity for helping struggling students; they need to be within a relatively small range of struggle in order to succeed.  Our Math Lab expands that range considerably (though there are still limits).

Understanding … a focus on understanding … enables students to obtain power in mathematics by raising their level of functioning to a higher point.

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  • By schremmer, December 10, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

    Re. “understanding” As it happens, I will be giving two talks on this very subject at my school next month. Here is how the preamble starts:

    We all want our students to understand the mathematics we present to them but what each one of us means by understand and/or mathematics probably varies more than we know or would like. So, […]

  • By Jack Rotman, December 12, 2016 @ 7:55 am

    That’s true … we don’t share any definition (let alone a precise def) for ‘understanding’. I think a shared definition will develop over time as we deliberately focus on reasoning in our courses.

  • By schremmer, December 12, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

    For a beginner, understanding probably does not involve “reasoning” but, rather, trying to “state reasonably well” what one is asserting, then to “make a reasonable case” for what one is asserting,and then, since “reasonable” is certainly in the eyes of the beholder, trying to be ready to “defend” one’s statement and one’s case for it.

    But then of course, “arguing” does not have good press these days.

    As for a “shared definition” …

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