Friday, September 14, 2012

Breathing the Rarified Air of a Mountainous Land

David is a student at Charleston Southern University, taking 16 credits in your average freshman schedule. The main reason why he dipped back into math last spring was that his ACT math scores were less than ideal. I will refrain from sharing the actual number, but the folks at CSU felt he needed remedial math. I agreed. I suggested he retake the ACT to boost his math score and avoid a class in which he would study for long hours but not receive any credit. He pointed out that his college of choice had already accepted him. I did some digging and let him know that CSU offered a math placement exam. If he passed the test, he could take a regular math class. He saw wisdom in that idea and spent the spring and summer diligently studying algebra.

Why would the son of an engineer (my husband has three engineering degrees) and a mathematician (I have two math degrees) fare so poorly in math? For a long time, I have suspected that, while David has the intelligence to do well in STEM subjects, he prefers more creative outlets. He tackled math by memorizing and cramming, even though we had always encouraged him to think. Since he always seemed to struggle with math, I could never prove my hypothesis.

Long story short, David studied Jacob's Algebra from cover to cover. He was surprised to find the book, both interesting and readable. David told me that Jacobs teaches you how to look at problems logically and to understand algebra. For years, he focused on cramming formulas, which he mixed-up on comprehensive tests. Rather than feeling anxious when he couldn't think of a formula, he learned to relax, write down ideas, and reason his way through problems. He also realized that asking for help is not a sign of weakness and reached out rather than stare at a page until his brain froze.

I think Jacob's Algebra is a fabulous book for many reasons. The author has not updated the book since the late 1970s. Unlike textbooks of today, it does not have ADHD, distracting students with irrelevant graphics, sidebars, etc. When I peeked at David's college math text, the glossy pictures of movie scenes in which mathematics played a role nauseated me. The money wasted on pop culture would be better spent showing students how to reason. I personally think all the eye candy in the world will not attract students to this much maligned subject. Force-feeding formulas to children without understanding and encouraging them to cram to get ready for standardized tests make them loathe math. Jacobs carefully unfolds algebraic thinking through brain teasers and puzzles before getting abstract. Learning to reason and apply logic changed David's attitude toward math.

He also struggled with fluency and accuracy. The month before taking the placement test, I wrote algebra quizzes based upon ACT problems. I had him run through problems at Khan Academy to practice fluency and accuracy. Because he understood more, he had to memorize less. He could focus his attention on practicing and improving these habits.

The end result is that he earned an 81 on the placement test and is taking freshman math. But, even more important, he enjoys mathematics now. When asked what about his favorite classes, he put English Composition right at the top followed by math: "Actually for some reason I'm preferring the math problems over reading... Pretty odd, huh?" He dislikes reading because he is on a steady diet of typical textbooks (yawn). He even added, "I might take some extra math classes as soon as I get all my required math courses out of the way."

This fall, I have another opportunity to win another student over to mathematics. I will share the beginning of her story in my next post.
Another realm open to Intellect has an uninviting name, and travelling therein is difficult, what with steep faces of rock to climb and deep ravines to cross. The Principality of Mathematics is a mountainous land, but the air is very fine and health-giving, though some people find it too rare for their breathing. It differs from most mountainous countries in this, that you cannot lose your way, and that every step taken is on firm ground. People who seek their work or play in this principality find themselves braced by effort and satisfied with truth. ~ Charlotte Mason


Bright Side of Life said...

I think that Thomas would love talking to you about Math. I read him some of this post and he said that he is fine with Algebra!! I don't doubt him because his test results are all in the 90's and the last one was 100%. I am glad that David now enjoys Math... as for me, I wouldn't have a clue what any of you are talking about! Hee hee...

walking said...

I am a glutton for math and will gladly talk to anyone about it. :-)