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Neatness Counts in Math
Ok, how many times have you heard the phrase “cleanliness matters”? But as you know, simple, common sense advice like this is often difficult for many of us to follow and apply. Nevertheless, when it comes to success, the cleanliness of math students is enormous. As a former middle and high school teacher, I can’t tell you how many math assignments I’ve seen that appear to be written in an alien language, aka “chicken scratch”. Of course, many people are convinced that math is completely and utterly a foreign language, but that’s a whole other topic. The fact is that mathematics is a language – a language that must be written correctly in order to be read and understood.
Students should consider solving a math problem as evidence of a legal case in court. A jury and a judge want to see a complete step-by-step logical argument to prove a point or a result – math teachers are no different. Math teachers around the world annoy their students with the phrase “show your work”, which should be interpreted as “prove your case”. So, let me describe 3 big math habits that cause problems for students.
o Writing too small. For that I say increase the font size man! I know a lot of people are concerned about global warming and want to save trees and paper, but feel free to write bigger. Remember that your teacher needs to be able to see what you are trying to communicate. Another ironic point here is that many math students collect their homework or math tests and they can’t even read their own work, how many of us have ever been through this?
o Sloppy writing. To that I say slow down and try harder. For many years I was a “sloppy kind of math student”. It wasn’t until I became a math teacher that my writing improved. I had a reason to focus because I was modeling mathematical solutions for students, my examples had to be clear, understandable and show key steps. So I got attached and made a commitment to be cleaner – it was hard but eventually I created good math writing habits and it helped me tremendously.
o Not writing enough. To that I say “tell the whole story”! If I had a penny for every time a student wrote an answer on their math test with no homework, I’d be a rich man! Remember that math teachers are like a judge/jury – they want proof! As a math student, you have to tell a story from start to finish…take the reader (teacher) from problem to solution. A good way to improve your math writing is to try modeling the amount of work your teacher shows when demonstrating math work on a blackboard or whiteboard. Again, with practice and experience you will get better results in math. By the way, a little advice for those of you who want to score more on your math test: the more work you show, the better your chances of getting partial credit on your math grade; so don’t change your math grade by not showing work!
Years of experience as a math teacher have taught me that many students struggle with math just because they are careless. The good news is that “neglect” is a habit that can be changed and improved. Math students can really help themselves by remembering that math is a language to be written clearly so it can be read – believe me, not only will your math skills improve, but your teacher will more than happy to thank you with better math grades.
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