How to Make Your Math Lessons More PowerfulPin

I’ve always been a failure at coupons. No matter what system I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to do more than save the occasional 50 cents on a bottle of ranch dressing.

But last year, my grocery store created a coupon app. Now, while I’m standing in line, I just pull out my phone, tap a few buttons, and whoosh! Tons of savings without any extra time or effort.

Homeschooling takes a lot of hard work, day after day and year after year. Fortunately, some teaching strategies are like my coupon app–quick wins that instantly make your math lessons more powerful, without taking more time or effort.

Here are three of my favorite ways to make my math lessons more powerful without any more work.

1. What’s the point?

Imagine watching a cooking show where the host launches right into cooking without telling you what she’s making: “First, I’m going to start heating the oven to 350. Now, I’ll mix up some flour, baking powder, and salt.”

Not a very exciting show, is it? It’s hard to make meaning out of a sequence of steps when you don’t know the end goal. But it’s a lot easier to get interested when you know that these steps will lead to a luscious chocolate cake!

Long division may not be as exciting as chocolate cake, but kids pay more attention and understand their math lessons better when they know the end goal, too.

So, tell your kids the point of the lesson. Even though the lesson objective may be obvious to us adults, it’s often not obvious to our kids. Just a few words at the beginning of each lesson will help your kids understand what to focus on.

“Today, you’re going to learn how to subtract decimals.”

“The point of your math lesson today is for you to learn how to find the area of a trapezoid.”

(My kids usually have better attitudes during math when I tell them the goal, too. I suspect it’s because it reassures them that I have a plan and know what I’m doing!)

2. Connect.

When we learn something new, our brains immediately try to make sense of it. How does this connect to what I already know? Does it fit with what I already know about the world?

As brain scientist Daniel Wallingham writes in his terrific book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

“What do cognitive scientists know about how students understand things? The answer is that they understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they do know).”

This is true in all subjects, but it’s especially important in math. That’s because every concept in math builds on previous concepts. Paying attention to these connections helps children better remember what they’ve learned. It also helps them appreciate the truth, beauty, and goodness of the subject as a whole.

So, how to point out these connections? There are several ways:

  1. Connect the new lesson goal to what your child learned yesterday. An easy formula that I often use is Yesterday…Today. For example: “Yesterday, you practiced subtracting with two-digit numbers. Today, you’re going to use the same kind of thinking to learn to subtract numbers with three digits.” This primes kids’ brains to look for similarities between previous learning and new learning.
  2. Some spiral curricula skip around a lot from lesson to lesson. If you use a spiral math program, it’s especially important that you help your child see how the new lesson is connected to what she already knows. Look back over the table of contents to see which previous lesson connects to the new lesson. For example, “Last week, you learned the -9 and -8 subtraction facts, and you’ve been practicing them in your assignments each day. Now that you know them so well, you’re going to use the subtraction facts to solve word problems.”
  3. Ask compare/contrast questions at the end of the lesson to help your kids make their own connections: “How is this concept like what you were learning yesterday? How is it different?” (Note that this is more appropriate for children in the upper elementary grades and older. If I asked my first-grader about how today’s math lesson is like yesterday’s math lesson, she’d probably tell me that both were about numbers!)

3. How did I do, Mom?

The last way to make your math lessons more powerful is simple, but it can be easy to overlook during our busy homeschool days: correct your child’s math assignment as soon as possible, and help him fix any mistakes.

Research shows that we learn more when we receive immediate feedback. If your schedule allows, keep your answer key handy and check your child’s work after every few problems. That way, you can make sure he understands the concept and isn’t making the same mistake over and over again.

But it’s okay if your schedule doesn’t allow for checking check every few problems. (Honestly, most days mine doesn’t either.) Instead, correct the assignment as soon as possible after your child finishes and go over it together. Point out what your child did well, and have him fix any mistakes.

Hopefully most of the mistakes you find will be minor errors. But sometimes you may discover that your child didn’t get the concept at all. It’s frustrating, but it happens. If that’s the case, just take a deep breath and think about how you’ll tackle the topic again tomorrow.

Providing this immediate feedback has several benefits. First, it communicates to your child that the point of completing a math worksheet isn’t just to finish the worksheet: the point is to learn the math. It also helps cut down on careless errors, since your child knows that he’ll have to fix any errors right away anyway. Plus, it’s good for your sanity. No one needs a huge pile of ungraded papers waiting for them at the end of a long day!

Sometimes, making your math lessons more powerful requires investing in new curriculum, spending more time planning, or brushing up on your own math skills. But sometimes, it can be as easy as telling your kids the lesson objective, making connections between concepts, or providing immediate feedback on assignments.

Perhaps it’s not quite as easy as tapping a few buttons on my phone to save money at the grocery. But your children’s solid math skills will be far more valuable than that bottle of ranch dressing!