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Math in the Time of COVID

If you’re like many of my students, I suspect you’re really happy to see the inside of a school building this fall. For many of you, the best parts of school are back: spending time with your friends, sports and extracurriculars, and just getting out of the house you’ve spent way too much time in over the last year. But with the return of “real” school come “real” classes and expectations — especially in your math class.

Are you feeling like your math skills aren’t as sharp as they could be right now? A little rustier than they usually are at the start of the school year? If so, you are not alone. I’ve been working with high schoolers for over 15 years and can assure you that, as a group, your math skills have taken a serious hit during the pandemic and online school. So why did that happen and, more importantly, what can you do about it now?

Most of my students, when faced with a math problem they don’t remember how to approach, now look up at me and say something like “this was from during Zoom,” as if that explains everything, and it kind of does. But why? To answer that, you need to understand a little bit about the three-step process that powers learning and memory: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval.

Encoding is what happens when you first learn new information you’ve never seen. Without that essential step, you’ll never learn anything. That’s why it’s so important that you pay attention in class — to make sure that information is encoded. After that happens, the memory needs to be consolidated — the neural connections in your brain strengthen and deepen as you put that information into more contexts and understand it in a more complete way. Finally, in order to do something with that knowledge, you need to retrieve it — that is, you need to remember it: to bring it from back in the recesses of your memory to top of mind.

Armed with that information, let’s look at what really happened to your learning last year. First of all, you were in class over Zoom most of the year. You needed to contend with a new medium, a myriad of distractions at home, and the prevailing stress of the whole situation you found yourself in. Looking at it through the lens of learning theory, all of those challenges made it more difficult for you to encode the information you were trying to learn. Many students also had much less homework to do last year. Your teachers made the very understandable choice to not overload you, which was helpful at the time. But doing less homework meant less consolidation of those new rules and concepts you (kind of) learned in class. Finally, you also likely had fewer tests and the those you did have tended to be open book or open note. So you didn’t have as many opportunities to retrieve the information you hopefully encoded and consolidated. And retrieval is an essential part of the cycle of learning, since the more you retrieve information, the easier it becomes.

That’s what happened. So what can you do about it? Well, you now know a little more about how learning works, and that’s what you’ll need to apply. You need to encode, consolidate, and retrieve! But that’s not easy — that takes work. You may be annoyed with the teacher who’s simply assuming this year is business as usual and you learned everything perfectly last year. You might be frustrated while you’re doing lots of review of the material you were supposed to have learned. But I want to let you in on a little secret: learning that feels easy isn’t typically effective; learning that feels hard is often incredibly beneficial. Last year felt easy, right? For many students it did, and they don’t have as many skills to show for it. So the struggle you’re feeling now is actually a good thing! You’ve already seen most of this material in some way, shape or form, so you’ve got some help encoded somewhere in that brain of yours! Keep doing the work (consolidating your memories) and quizzing yourself (practicing retrieval) and you’ll be back in math-shape before you know it!

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