This past week I attended the NCTM Regional Conference held in St Louis, MO.  At the conference, one of the sessions I attended was by Rita Barger from the University of Missouri-Kansas City about commons myths about learning and succeeding in math.  This series of 5 posts will share what I learned from the session.

What is it?

The “math is mostly memorizing” belief is the belief that you can be good at math by just memorizing a few things.  If you simply memorize a few formulas and the step-by-step process that your teacher uses, you can get through math easily.  Unfortunately, I think this is a belief that many of our students buy into, even though they may not find much success with it.

What causes it?

This belief is, once again, largely caused by our current teaching methods.   When we just emphasize teaching skills, students see this as opportunity to follow a step-by-step checklist to arrive at solutions.   We tell students to “do what we do” and, if they do, they will see success in our classes.

It might also stem for our questioning as teachers.  Typically, when we’re teaching students to replicate what we are doing, we only engage them in low-level thinking questions.  Instead of asking our students to think about what we’re doing in a problem, we’ll ask them to tell us what comes next.  Students can easily get by knowing the step-by-step and not having a clue as to why we progress throughf problems the way we do.

Additionally, teachers may cause this by creating assessments (tests or quizzes) that replicate the questions done in class or completed by students for homework.  If a teacher consistently does this, students could very easily get through math without ever actually understanding the questions they are “solving”.

What does it look like?

One of the most noticeable ways we see students believing this is when we hear them respond to questions with “You said…”.  Right away, this shows us that the student has tried to memorize what you had said at an earlier time.  I have run into this many times and I have usually found that the students haven’t memorized it properly, or have mixed it up with another similar concept.

Students also have difficulty generalizing or applying the concepts to different situations.  They may struggle to make new connections between concepts or use the concepts in real world situations.  If you were to present them with a WCYDWT problem, I would imagine they would have difficulty making the connections between the real world aspects of these problems.

What can we do about it?

One of the best ways to address this memorization is derive any formulas we use in class, instead of just telling students to memorize it.  I like this idea, but I wonder if students that believe math is memorizing will just zone out during the derivation and memorize the final formula.  There has to be a better way to do this.  Maybe some sort of inquiry-based activity is the answer here.

Rita also suggested that once a concept is derived, let your students name it.  This will allow students to take some ownership of the formula and maybe they’ll be more inclined to understand where they got it from.  Over time, you can begin to explain that the math community actually calls it something else, opening the door the “correct” math vocabulary.

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Five unhealthy beliefs in math that exist today are: