Thursday, December 10, 2009

Strengths and weaknesses

Working in small groups, I've found that my students are at similar levels of math ability. In talking with other volunteers, what really surprises me is that their strengths and weaknesses rotate. One student may be really strong in one aspect of fractions, but will not quite understand long division as well. Another student may excel in long division but don't quite grasp the least common denominator. So in working with my small group of students, I'll get their strengths to come out and use it to help the other students.

Asking questions like, "How did you get to that answer?" or "Why do you think it's __%?" and asking them to explain to the other students their thought process tends to help the struggling students understand in kid level language. Research and personal experience shows that when a student has the ability to explain and teach a concept to others, they're showing they know the material, can put it into easy to comprehend language, and it reinforces their knowledge of the concept.

In dealing with math weaknesses, encouraging the students to not give up is really important. No one wants to feel like a failure or to feel like they can't understand something when everyone else seems to already know it. Using relational statements like, "When I was learning [fractions], it was really hard for me too, but I kept trying and now I'm really good at them" will encourage them to not give up, but relates to how tough a concept may be to learn at first.

Another thing I've taken up recently is guiding students through the process but not giving them the answers. Long division is a lengthy process that has a lot of steps and it can be tough for students to remember every step in order. We've been using long division to change fractions into decimals and I've guided them through the multiple steps.

Me: "Can 8 go into 3?"
Me: "Wait, 8 is bigger than 3, can 8 really go into 3?"
"No, so you put a zero on top"
Me: "What next?"
"You put a decimal point, and then a zero next to the 3"
Another student: "Bring the zero down"
[Usually there's a pause here when they forget what comes next]
Me: "Ok so what do we have?"
"How many times can 8 go into 30?"

On one hand, I think guiding them through the process is helpful, but I've seen that they depend on that guidance when they're working by themselves. Working in small groups, the students also depend on others to step up when they don't know the answer or aren't focusing on the problem. I've started calling on the student who isn't as engaged or clearly looking off into the distance. Calling them out like this tends to refocus them so I don't have to explain things multiple times.

As the year progresses, I'll put up more tips and tricks I've learned for working with students. I'll also ask other volunteers to help blog as well for dealing with other grade specific math content, student behaviors, or just 'a day in the life' of other volunteers.

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