Math Study Skills – Incorporating Them Into Your Class

This semester I have been incorporating study skill instruction into my two developmental mathematics classes – prealgebra & elementary algebra. I plan to share updates from time to time, beginning with this post.

There are many ways to help students pick up the study skills required for success in a math class. At our school we have tried a single unit math study skills course, titled “Winning At Math”. The course was named after Paul Nolting’s groundbreaking book. The course was taught by counselors, and was a stand-alone course that students who felt that they needed help could enroll in.

The course could be viewed as unsuccessful. Enrollments were low – probably because students who need to improve their math study skills are the least likely to realize that they need the help.

The math department worked with student services to promote the class, and there was a great deal of collaboration between math instructors and the counselors teaching the class. The drawback to the approach of this class is that study skills are being taught in a vacuum without the context of trying to learn mathematics in general. The counselors did their best, but at the end of the day, they do not have the background to use the study skills to learn particular math topics. The students came in with such varying math skills as well, making it difficult to find topics they could all relate to.

I believe that math study skills are to be taught in the mathematics classroom. I feel that I am capable of introducing study skills on an as needed basis, depending on the current math topic being taught. For example, early in the semester I taught my students that a series of 3×5 note cards could be used to learn the rules for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing integers. As the semester progressed I was able to alert students to “note card moments” – topics which were natural fits for using note cards. Yesterday we were covering perimeter & formulas for perimeter, and towards the end of class I said “It’s time for a note card moment. How could we use note cards to help us with today’s topic?” My students had many great ideas – write the name of the shape on the front of the card and the formula on the back, write a problem on the front of the card and its solution on the back …

Because my students are all in the same class, they are all learning the same material at the same time. I can introduce a study skill that they can all apply to the same topic, at the same time. So, I am able to teach a study skill in the context of teaching a math topic, and that is why I feel this approach is so successful.

One last question, and not an inconsequential one, is whether we are even supposed to be teaching college students how to study and how to learn.  Shouldn’t college students be held responsible? Many instructors complain that students seem to be less prepared than ever, and my contention is that the math itself is not their biggest hurdle, but instead that they do not know how to learn the math. On the first day of class I ask my students to generate a list for the prompt “To be a successful math student, I need to …”. My students know how to complete the list: study, do homework, come to class, take notes, …. Then I ask them how do you study for math? How do you effectively do homework? Why should you take notes? How do you take notes? How can you use your notes? These are the questions they cannot answer. Is that because they were not taught the skills in their K-12 career? Is it because they chose not to apply these skills? I do not care about the answer, all I know is that they cannot be successful in mathematics without first learning how to be a mathematics student. I think mathematics instructors, as a group, must teach their developmental students not just math, but we absolutely have to teach our students HOW to learn mathematics.

In future posts I will share more on the individual study skills, and how I have been incorporating them.