High School Math: It’s Different, but Mostly the Same

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By Massiha “Moose” Habibi

High School Math.

Alright, if you read that and groaned, my first points are for you. The big challenge with math in high school tends to be how it builds upon itself. What do I mean? Well, in your history class, you can answer questions about Rome even if you don’t remember Mesopotamia. In English, you can write about a book you’ve read even if you don’t remember the book you read before that. In math, to do an algebra problem, you might have to remember long division, order of operations, or the dreaded rules that go with fractions. Remembering this stuff gets particularly bad coming back from a break when you probably haven’t had to think about math rules at all for a long time.

So, here’s how to take on this challenge:

  1. Review. Math is cumulative, so all your old math is going to be coming up again. Just a little bit of practice can make applying these older skills more comfortable and make you faster at using them. Most importantly, practicing older skills takes away the distraction of trying to remember a rule from two years ago in the moment, so you can better focus on the new math ideas you’re being taught.
    • If you have good notes (useful skill!) or the handouts from previous classes, those are useful for review. However, when I say review here, I don’t mean just look at them again. You have to do the problems again to rebuild the connections between the steps you learned.
    • There are tons of great resources online now, including YouTube, Khan Academy, and other websites with practice problem sets. As a reminder, watching a video alone won’t work. You have to work through some problems for your brain to solidly rebuild the connections between steps.
  2. Make your own cheat sheet. There is SO MUCH MATH. But still, there aren’t actually SO many math rules. Write down the rules, or the steps, all in one place. Make sure you include the types of math that you’ve had a hard time with before. The goal is to not have to use your memory all the time. If you’ve got a question with fractions, just flip to the page where you’ve written down the fraction rules and remind yourself of what you need to do. Here’s a sentence that sounds wrong but is right: The more you use the cheat sheet, the less you’ll need it.

Now, here’s the advice for all students, including the students who don’t dread math. From Algebra onwards, math class will have a specific name each year. That means you’re getting into complex types of math. Complex doesn’t mean scary: it just means there are going to be more pieces to doing it. Math changes from questions with quick answers (“What is 6 times 3?”) to questions you have to work through (say, solving a set of simultaneous questions). Here’s how to adjust:

  1. Don’t rush. In earlier math classes, you get praised for being able to find the answer quickly. That doesn’t work for advanced math. Now the focus has to be about the process, not the speed.
  2. Focus on the steps. Write out what the process is for different types of questions (for example, step one, step two, and so on). That will help solidify what you need to do now and be a really helpful guide for review when you have similar questions in the future.
  3. One step at a time. Similar to not rushing, it’s important not to try to do every step all in your head and all at once. Math going forward will be a process, and you need to carefully do each individual step. That means doing it on paper, and not doing several things/steps at once. Paper is plentiful (and renewable!), so don’t let errors slip into your work simply because you were trying to save space!

Now, the bad news is that you’re going to have to keep up with math. If you fall behind on the homework or in class, it’s much harder to learn the next concept they’re teaching you. But the good news is that math concepts go from frustrating and impossible to easy and boring very quickly (and with practice). Once you get the hang of a skill, they can switch the numbers around on you and you’ll still get how to do it, time after time.

Don’t be afraid of the work and ask for help as soon as you think you might need it. If you’re willing to do that, you can handle all the math, even if you have to grumble all the way through it.

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