November 7, 2011

How to Study for Math

Last week I gave a test on proofs.  It went poorly.  As I graded them I felt badly for rushing the test to get it in before the end of the quarter.  When I returned them, I apologized for giving the test before everyone was ready but made sure to say that I was sharing the blame, they needed to take responsibility too and tell me when they didn't understand what we were doing.  I've had a better sense of what everyone knows from regular quizzes this year, but I try to make those 3 short questions while the test has multi-step and cumulative problems, which is where everyone got stuck.

All this was fine, until I started reading their test corrections.  The first question on the page asks "How did you study for the test?"  Page after page had answers such as "I didn't" or "I read my notes" or "I flipped through notes right before the test."  Now I know that most high schoolers don't know how to study for math, so from the beginning of the year I talk about how to organize notes into two columns with vocab on one side and definitions on the other so they can easily skim and quiz themselves.  We make a study guide together the class before the test (which gives them 2 nights to study thanks to block scheduling).  I make them write out the study guide even if they have nice notes because I know (and share) that the act of writing helps implant information in the brain.  I talk to them about active vs. passive methods of studying.  I specifically assign the practice test in the book.  But, after all of this I get "I looked over my notes" as the sole method of studying.  I no longer felt guilty for rushing the test, but frustrated with my students for not taking responsibility by preparing for the test.

So, I decided I must not be enough of an expert- I'd need something more official or more flashy to convince them.  So today I provided just that.  First I took this article (direct link to pdf: How to Study Math by Paul Dawkins) and broke it into 4 sections.  We did a jigsaw where each kid was assigned a page to read and annotate (underline things you currently do, circle things you could do for the next test) and compared notes with people who read the same page.  Then, they got into groups of four and shared out.  This activity made me want to be an English teacher - they read, made notes and talked to each other!  All of English must be so easy!  Then I came back to my senses, I don't envy English teachers at all, but it was fun to read and discuss something.

How to Study Math
After students shared a few of the most interesting parts of their page with the whole class I showed them this diagram:

**Edit (8/6/12 7:30 pm) I just found out the Cone of Learning has no basis in research.  Debating if I should white out the percents or toss it entirely.

I hope that the quote and the percentages really hit home.  Maybe now they'll start practicing vocabulary words as soon as they get them?  And do actual practice problems since the best way to learn is by doing?  Maybe?

At the very least it was a productive 30 minutes of students reflecting on how they study and being exposed to some other options from sources other than me (who they have to listen to every day).  I'll let you know how the next test goes!


  1. Tina, I love that article and the jigsaw idea of helping kids process and learn how to apply it to their own studying. Will definitely be stealing for my own classroom - thanks!

    1. You're welcome! Note though, that I just found out the percents on the cone of learning poster have no basis in research. I added a note to the post but in case you subscribed to comments I thought I'd better say so down here as well.