A day in the life of a Maths pupil

Pupils and parents often ask me, “What is the best way to study Maths?” Unfortunately, I do not have a universal answer. People learn in different ways. However, I do suggest some methods that have worked for me and my pupils over the years. Yes, they involve summaries (especially mind maps), lots of colour, teamwork, and talking to yourself like a crazy person. No, they do not entail practice, practice, practice. Practice is a part of the puzzle, but it is only one piece. When you practise and how you practise are critical.

Let us look at a day in your life, as a high school Maths pupil who wants to study Maths effectively and achieve excellent results. This starts from day one by the way. From the first day that you walk into that Maths class, you are making decisions that will influence the outcome of your end-of-year exam. I dare to take that statement a step further and say that from the first day that you walk into that Grade 8 Maths class, you are making decisions that will influence the outcome of your Matric final exam. How is that for serious business? You had better sit up and pay attention!

You walk into the class armed with all your necessary weapons of Maths construction (I couldn’t resist). You have your pens, pencils, highlighters, ruler, Maths set and the exact calculator prescribed by your school. Don’t be the poor soul who keeps asking, “Ma’am, what are the steps for doing [insert calculator command] on my calculator”, after she has painstakingly taken the rest of the class through a detailed step-by-step process on the prescribed calculator. Just don’t. It is not worth it. You have the correct workbook, for the correct paper (either Paper 1 or Paper 2), as well as your textbook (or the relevant pages bookmarked on your tablet or phone). You sit down, take a moment to breathe and allow your mind to enter the Maths zone. This is very important for your brain, since it doesn’t easily make the change from casual conversation with your friends to solving algebraic equations. As the teacher explains new concepts and works through examples, you make sure that you are completely tuned in, you write notes in your book (not on random pieces of paper to be lost in the land of faraway with last term’s sandwiches and old socks), and you make mental notes of any questions you may have. Once the teacher has finished explaining something, you put up your hand and boldly ask an intelligent question. Are you feeling a little light headed even as you read that? “But what if I ask a stupid question?” you may be wondering. Let me explain the components of an intelligent question. Firstly, explain your misunderstanding: “I am a bit unclear with your explanation of…” If possible, state what you know: “It seems similar to…” State what you don’t know: “…but I don’t understand the part where you said…” Sound confident, be specific, and speak as well as you can. You want to project the idea that you are smart, and that you were listening and taking notes, but that you did not grasp a particular concept. Avoid questions such as “I don’t understand” or “I wasn’t listening, please could you explain that again”. It is also very important to listen to other people’s questions so that you do not repeat them. You end off the lesson by taking down your homework or entering it on a handy little homework app, such as myHomework Student Planner App. If you have time, you start your homework by reading the instructions and underlining keywords, and attempt the first problem. You pack up all your stationery and head to your next class.

When you get home, you retreat to your bedroom or another quiet place in the house to do your Maths homework. You make sure that the environment is free from noise and distractions, you put your phone on silent and out of sight, and you get started. You read through what you did in class that day. This takes two to five minutes at a maximum. You take out your A3 (or A2 is even better) art book and work on your mind map for that section. It is only a bit of work so you add a few notes to one or two branches. Mind maps are great for Maths, because they show links and allow your brain to see the big picture. Colours help you categorise information into chunks, and to highlight similar or comparative concepts so that your brain can categorise and memorise them. The aim is not to write down lots of examples in your mind map, but rather to explain concepts and steps in words, and to take note of specific question words, such as “explain, interpret, solve, simplify, factorise, etc.” Your mind map takes you about ten minutes. You keep post-it notes handy to write down any questions that you want to ask the teacher the following day. If you have time, you search for the answers in your textbook or online. You then take a minute or two to cover up your mind map and explain the concepts back to yourself, a willing parent or sibling, or even the family goldfish. The important thing is to get talking. Only then do you practice by working through homework problems. You work through the problems quicker than you would have if you had not consolidated the content first. You make sure to set out your solutions like you would in a test or an exam, showing all steps and writing neatly. This is important, because you are creating a habit that will allow you to work quickly and effectively in timed assessments. When you find a question difficult, you write down your attempt and then move on to the next question. You do not give up. Once you have attempted all the homework questions, you go back to the ones you struggled with and find that you can do some of them. You put stars next to the ones that you weren’t able to complete and make a note to ask a teacher. It is important to sort out any problems immediately or at least the following day. Maths has a way of snowballing, and if you don’t deal with issues as they arise, you may just find yourself trapped under an avalanche right before a big assessment. You close your book, content that you have left no blank spaces. The type of practice that you engaged in during the ten or so minutes of doing your homework, is called deliberate practice, and it leads to excellence.

Okay, we are done with this visualisation exercise. Now imagine that the person I just described was you, and this is what you did every day, from the first day of school. How would you feel just before a test? Panicked and anxious? No. You would be well prepared, with no need to cram. You could watch a movie, or read a book the night before a big assessment. Don’t believe me? I dare you to give it a try. What do you have to lose?

Yours in Maths,