Stop trying to get good grades!

How’s that for an attention grabber? Let me explain what I mean.

I remember back to 11th grade. Like most students, I was trying to get good grades to get into a “great” college. Unfortunately, as is often the case with math and science people, my English class was getting in the way. I dreaded poetry and that is what stood in the way of getting an A. At first, I did what most students do: I memorized the terms and material, thinking that this would get me that elusive A. It didn’t. Desperate for better results and having nothing to lose, I tried something new. I tried to LEARN poetry. I tried to UNDERSTAND it. I tried to find out what made poems tick, what poets thought about, what motivated them. After a while, a funny thing happened. I learned and understood poetry. I ended up earning A’s on my quizzes and tests. To this day, I am not a fan of poetry. However, I do have to credit poetry with helping me to figure out how to succeed in school.

You see, the biggest mistake a student can make is setting the goal of ‘getting good grades’ in school. If all you are motivated by is your next A, you will find yourself stressed when you are in class, doing your homework, taking quizzes and tests. And, as many of us know, stress is Enemy #1 in mathematics. It really is a terrible cycle: worrying about getting good grades causes stress which helps you earn to poor grades. The poor grades make you worry more and the cycle continues.

So, what is the solution? It’s simple. You have to switch your goal, away from good grades and towards learning the subject. You have to want to learn math. You have to make the understanding of the subject the goal of learning math. You have to go beyond the steps to solve an equation or the words of a theorem and try to find the connections. For example,

  • When solving an equation, instead of simply knowing how to solve an equation, understand why you are able to do the things you do. Why can I divide both sides of the equation by a number? Why am I able to move variables to the other side?
  • When solving quadratic equations using the Quadratic Formula, understand the formula. Where did it come from? Why can it be used to solve any quadratic equation?
  • When learning the Triangle Sum Theorem, understand the background. Why do parallel lines play a part in this theorem?
  • When learning the Perpendicular Bisector Theorem, understand why it is true. Why do congruent triangles play a pivotal role in its proof?

The common thread in all of these examples is looking at math in a global context. Instead of focusing on a single topic, look for how it relates to the entire subject. If you can find the connections, math will become more than just bunch of disconnected ideas. Instead, it will be a continuous thread of ideas, seamlessly flowing from one idea to the next. You will begin to UNDERSTAND it. It becomes a part of your thought process. Then, when it comes time to use it or recall it, you don’t need to think about it. It’s there for you to use.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work at first to switch to this way of thinking. Instead of trying to finish your homework as quickly as possible, you have to slow down and contemplate it. You will need to read the words in your textbook. (Yes, they have actual words in them!) You will need to think about math more often than just the 45 minutes of class

However, when you make understanding the material the goal of learning math, a funny thing happens … you get good grades.