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Students Struggling With Math in High School: How to Help

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Benjamin Sell • updated: 9/11/2012

Some students in high school are totally turned off math.These kids may have had a bad run with their math schooling or be turned off learning math for due to poor basic skills, low motivation or an undiagnosed learning disability. So how do we help students struggling with math in high school?

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    Check the Basics

    First off, from a teaching point of view, check that the basics are there. If kids can't perform the four operations effectively (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), they will struggle with high school math. If they can't follow the abstract nature of algebra because their brains have not developed to a point where abstract thought is meaningful to them, they will have great difficulty with some of the higher-order math thinking and problem-solving tasks.

    Likewise, if they have a learning disability that makes it hard to read, write, understand or retain information, math may be a challenge that requires specific intervention. Some students have a condition called dyscalculia, which is a specific learning disability with arithmetic. If this is present, ideally it should be diagnosed and the student provided with appropriate support and intervention.

    Spend time each lesson checking and reviewing basic skills, and ensuring students struggling with math develop strategies for dealing with their own learning deficiencies and issues as they move up in the school. Students who can be aware of how they learn best, and what works for them, are better able to take control of their own learning. Discuss learning styles and encourage students to understand their own style, whether they are, for example, a visual learner or auditory learner.

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    Workplace Math: From Mastering the Basics to Practical Work Skills

    For some students, making a link to a real life topic such as workplace math can put what they are learning in the classroom into context. If they are able to see a tangible link to a practical situation, sometimes the skills and concepts will become easier to learn and retain. Making this link with a workplace situation also helps keep students motivated. It is also great for those students who learn best with a hands-on approach, but don't confuse this with skipping the basics just to get to the fun 'application' stage of learning.

    Choose workplace topics that have instant appeal to the students you know are at risk of failure or dropping out of math. So if you know you have some students struggling with math who are highly motivated by cars, make a link with the automotive industry, and apply their math skills to automotive math.

    For example, learn about the formula for speed, calculate the number of trips needed to reach a certain mileage reading, estimate and then measure how far various cars will travel on a full tank, research the alternative fuel options available to motorists, or read and discuss car advertisements in the paper or online.

    For students who are interested in horticulture, spend time learning about watering choices, measuring flow from a rain water tank, estimating and measuring the area of turf needed for a golf course, or designing a new sustainable garden.

    For students who are motivated by the great outdoors, try tasks such as collecting and collating information in preparation for a camping trip, graphing the change in heart rate of an athlete during a work out, or making a table of exercises suggested by a personal trainer in a gymnasium. This same group may also love the challenge of learning about animal care and the construction of a chicken coop for some new feathered school-yard friends!

    Where possible, access photocopiable resource materials in books on teaching students who struggle with math that are age appropriate, so that students are working on content that is relevant, useful and suited to their age and interests. It also frees up your time to focus on individual teaching and support rather than time-consuming resource preparation.

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    Student Interviews About Workplace Math

    It can be useful during math class to talk to students who struggle with math individually about their interests and career directions. This can help the student to refine their career thinking and help you as teacher to prepare meaningful and relevant content that will help them reach their goals. You can do this through a formal interview, or in a less formal conversation. Either way, record what students tell you about their career interests, and then spend time considering how you can make the math curriculum appropriate for their individual needs.