Ok, how many times have you heard the phrase “neatness counts”? But as you know simple and common sense advice like this is often hard for many of us to follow and apply. Nevertheless, when it comes to being successful math student neatness is huge. As a former middle and high school teacher I can’t tell you how much math work I saw that looked like it was written in alien language, aka “chicken scratch”. Of course many people are convinced that math is completely and totally an alien language but that’s another topic all together. The point is that math is a language- one to be written properly so it can be read and understood.
Students should view solving a math problem as proving a legal case in court. A jury and judge want to see a complete step-by-step logical argument to prove a point or result- math teachers are no different. Math teachers around the world bore their students with the phrase “show your work” this should be interpreted as “prove your case”. So, let me describe 3 big math habits that get students into trouble.
o Writing too small. To this I say increase the font size dude! I know many people are concerned about global warming and want to preserve trees and paper but please- feel free to write bigger. Remember your teacher needs to actually be able to see what you’re trying to communicate. Another ironic point here is that many math students get their homework or math test back and they can’t even read their own work, how many of us ever experienced this?
o Sloppy writing. To this I say slow it down and try harder. For many years I was a chronic “kind of sloppy 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 math solutions to students, my examples had to be clear, understandable and show keys steps. So I buckled down and made a real commitment to be neater- it was hard but eventually I created good math writing habits and it helped tremendously.
o Not writing enough. To this I say “tell the whole story”! If I had a nickel for every time a student just wrote an answer on their math test with no supporting work I would be a rich man! Remember math teachers are like a judge/jury- they want proof! As math students you have to tell a story from start to end…walking the reader (teacher) from problem to solution. A good way to improve your math writing is to try to model how much work your teacher shows when demonstrating math work on a chalk board or white board. Once more, with practice and experience you will get better math results. By the way a little tip for those of you interested in getting more points on your math test- the more work you show the better your chances of getting partial credit on your math grade; so don’t short change your math grade by not showing work!
Years of experience as a math teacher have taught me that many students struggle in math solely because they are sloppy. The good news is “sloppiness” 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- trust me not only will your math skills improve your teacher will be more than be happy to thank you by better math grades.