Math Teacher Help

I am currently teaching three sections of a low-level Algebra II class. It is becoming more and more clear to me that many of these students really should not have passed Pre-Algebra. The material I am teaching/reviewing now is similar to what was taught in that course. Yet it seems like no matter how I try to teach it they just don’t get it. It’s driving me (and them) nuts and killing my (and their) confidence.

I am having trouble on many levels with these students.

1 - They don’t remember old material.
Most of what I am teaching now is a review of concepts they should have learned in Pre-Algebra and then again in Algebra I. This is not new stuff. Yet they treat it as if it is brand new and really horribly difficult. I checked with their old teachers and they definitely taught these concepts so it’s not that they just didn’t get to it.

2 – They don’t speak up when they need help.
Except for a few students (out of 70 or so) the students do not come in outside of class for extra help. This one-on-one time would be very beneficial but they consistently choose not to take advantage of it. I have offered my help during lunch and after school. I also set up peer tutors during lunch.

3 – They do not study (at least not well) for tests and quizzes.
I have gone out of my way to make comprehensive study guides for each assessment detailing exactly what they need to know along with practice problems that correspond with the concepts. When I ask the students if they studied for the test many (if not most) will say they did very little studying.
I am at my wits end at where to go with these students. One option is to switch gears entirely and re-teach them Pre-Algebra. This would be good for the majority of the students who need it but horrible for those students who have at least some understanding of the material and are fully deserving of a thorough Algebra II course.

I have requested a meeting with my supervisor and eagerly await his feedback. In the meantime I am hopeful that someone here can give me some input as well.

One thing my math teacher does is he only has three things graded: a handout, quiz, and an exam. We have three exams and six quizzes and handouts. He has homework assigned but he doesn’t collect it. For his quizzes he will either take very similar questions from the handouts, or the exact same ones, so it is smart to do the handout. For each exam he gives out a practice exam, and on the actual thing he’ll do the same, either take directly the questions or make them very similar. He doesn’t collect the practice exam, but it is very smart to do it.

When I was in high school one of the things I hated in math class was that it felt like I was doing a lot of busy work. At least now I know that the work I do is vital to my getting a good grade, so I’m more likely to do it.

Thanks for the advice, RandMcnally. My quizzes are all taken directly from the homeworks. The tests are all easier versions of the practice tests.

I would love to not have to count homework for credit. This would save me a lot of time going around to check for completion. Unfortunately when I have tried that in the past I caught a lot of flak from the students who don’t test well. They wanted some reward for their effort. I received so much pressure from kids, their parents, and special ed teachers, that I had to return to counting homework for credit. Also if I don’t count it for credit the number of students who just wouldn’t do the work at all would be so high that they would hold back the class.

I assume this is at the college/university level? If so, these students are adults, and if you make yourself available, and a ton of study and summary material available, and no one bothers to look at it, then it is their fault and their responsibility to shoulder the blame, IMHO. I’m a student, btw, and I cannot blame the teacher if I don’t put in the slightest effort and get a poor grade!

That said, perhaps spending 2-3 lectures reviewing the early material, stating quite plainly at the start of the class that this is the last time you will review it, and to go read the review documents or come see you if they have any questions should be sufficient. I don’t see why you should have to bend over backwards for apathetic students - you aren’t there to issue free "A"s to students.

One possibility is that you may be using different terms or notation compared to what previous professors have used. I have no idea what is covered in “pre-algebra” or “algebra I or II” (while I’ve studied the topics, I’ve never had the classes divided that way!) so I don’t know what notations could be confusing students, but perhaps sitting down with the professors from previous years and going over the concepts to see if you’re presenting it the same way could be helpful. As a visual learner, it used to cause me a ton of confusion to have one prof use X while another used ^x or ->x (x-hat or x-arrow) for vectors…it just didn’t seem like it was the same thing in some cases, even though it was.

When you do problems in class, do you write out the theory and give trivial examples, or do you really work through things line by line in painful detail? I have a prof that sets up the first equation then jumps to the answer, leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks, which just makes for very confusing lectures (although in this case, the math is actually quite easy, it is nonetheless intimidating to spend entire lectures going WTF?!?! because of the large gaps in the math). Also, explaining variables and such in words as you go, rather that simply stating “let x= the number of apples” and then solving something complex could help. Get to the answer and then explain what it means within the context of the original question, rather than just ending with x= 143.

I don’t know if any of that helps! When I think of “bad” math teachers, it usually turns out that my learning style was just different than theirs, and I usually had to put things into words in order to understand things that, for some people, are just intuitively obvious. As a teacher, if you can learn about different learning styles, and manage to teach your subject in different ways, so that you present the same thing 2-3 times but in a different manner, you might be able to reach more students that way. I’m not a teacher, though, and I’m sure that’s a lot easier said than done!

Good luck!

But if the students did the homework shouldn’t they have tested well?

This is at the high school level where much more hand-holding is expected. If I were teaching this at the college level I wouldn’t be nearly as concerned.

The kids that I am concerned about are indeed very apathetic. Or they like to throw themselves pity parties and blame everyone else but them. They say the class moves too fast (then speak up as soon as you need help) or they understand the material in class but can’t duplicate it on their own (again, come in for help!) or they just don’t test well (then you may need to study twice as hard/long as someone else who does test well).

Great suggestion! I will do this asap.

This is one area I struggle with somewhat. I worry that if I don’t give enough basic examples they won’t get the basics. But if I spend too much time on the basics then I don’t have enough time for the more difficult examples. It’s quite a balancing act.

Again, another great suggestion. I am slowly working to modify my typical teaching methods to work better for a variety of learning styles.


Because homework is graded only for completion and not correctness they don’t always correlate perfectly. But what you say is almost completely true in general. They still complain about it though.

I can tell you exactly what the problem is in my city. My kids are in high school math, and I work with them often on their homework. I’ve been on every math committee at their schools, and I still know my college math. I don’t know how it’s taught where you are, but here, there is so much of the “Discovery Math” (conceptual math rather than formulaic) that they seldom learned any rules for how to do the work, just a bunch of concepts that are quickly forgotten. They are embarassed to go in for help, and not motivated to because they think it’s boring and they don’t realize how much they don’t know; they just have a vague sense of not really understanding anything. To come in for help gives them help on the day’s homework, but their gaps go much further back. They never were taught multiplication of 2-digit & higher numbers (who the hell ever thought the lattice method is anything other than a parlor trick?), long division, or prime factorization, which all go a long way toward understanding number concepts. “Everybody learns math in different ways” is a BS phrase that translates into “No one will learn a definitive way to do anything because we’re so busy teaching method after method after method rather than one simple algorithm”. If they haven’t learned it yet, it was probably because they were never given the most basic algorithm of how to do it far enough back down the line. What they have been taught has been characterized as “a mile wide, but only an inch deep.”

Another problem is that for years, they have not had the actual textbooks to bring home, but Xeroxed handouts to work off of. That makes it impossible for them to go back and re-read the methods to be used, and impossible for parents to offer much help.

As far as ideas for what you can do:
1.) I can’t recommend highly enough for students the free, online Khan Math website: or search on YouTube (also very good for parents who need refreshers). It is math lessons in small doses, from basic arithmetic on through college math (also physics, credit, banking, some biology, and more). He explains everything so well that anyone can learn algebra, or any other kind of math, through it. If you could somehow assign it to the students, they can go a long way to catching up and reinforcing what they need to know. Once they use the site, they will have it as a resource on hand whenever needed. You could assign them one lesson per day until they have reached your class’s level. The fact that it’s on YouTube goes a long way to giving it street cred. From the site:

“Thanks so much for your videos, there are immensely helpful. I have got my entire AP Calculus class watching your videos. :)” “I am a high school Math/Physics Teacher working in Toronto Ontario. I have been referring students to your videos for the past year and have referenced many of them on my website. Those that have used it find it very useful, and have commented that you explain content better than I do…”
Good luck.

I just looked that up. Why would you teach such a complicated method? How in the world is that “fun and easy”?

While I lamented knowing how to do long division and greater multiplication, since we were allowed to use a calculator, perhaps that did help me. Yay Montessori mmmethod, which won’t let you move on until you get 100% on the previous lesson. And bless my grandpa who was a math teacher, and taught me how to teach myself math, instead of relying on the teacher to teach it my way.

needscoffee you hit the nail on the head exactly! Kids nowadays (man I feel old saying that!) do not appreciate drill-and-practice for the good that it is. They complain if I give them more than 10 problems for homework. When I was in school 30-50 was the norm. Our teachers have actually been given a time limit for homework assignments - as in the assignment should not take the student more than x amount of time. Clearly doing a minimal number of problems isn’t working for them so I’m upping the number starting tomorrow, complained be darned! :stuck_out_tongue:

All of my students have textbooks but the vast majority of them only use them to pull out their required homework problems. You mean they can actually read the sections and learn from the book?? :rolleyes:

Thanks a bunch for the website. I will suggest it to my students tomorrow.

BigT I have long been curious about the Montessori Method and how it works. What happens if all of the students are at a different place in the curriculum? Do they teach themselves to a large degree or is it something else?

I never even heard of the lattice method until a student of mine showed me this year. It’s good for large numbers I guess but doesn’t really teach anything.

I’ve been in your shoes. It’s very frustrating. However, the problem is not you, but in the system that allows unqualified students into your class. Your school needs a better way to pre-qualify students for your class. Press for that. My suggestion is to teach according to the syllabus of the course, but make some accommodations when necessary (like slowing down or reviewing some basic material) along the way. Believe it or not, there are students in the class who will do just fine in the class. Others will fail, as they should since they were not able or willing to do the required work. You should not dumb down the material to suit students who cannot hack it. Offer them time during office hours or set up special sessions outside of the regular class meetings. Oh yes, I almost forgot to add: don’t show your frustration in the classroom in front of the students. That won’t help. Good luck.

I teach eighth grade pre-algebra and I’ve had this problem too. One thing that I’ve found effective for most all age levels (tried it on second graders through undergrads) is to ask the class if they understand and have them respond with a thumbs up, down, or sideways depending on how confident they feel. I don’t move on until I’ve gotten some response from everyone. Students who are shyer about the fact that they don’t get the material are generally comfortable enough to at least give a thumbs down. This allows me to gauge the class’s understanding as a whole and lets me single out students who may need one on one attention. Then, after class, I approach the few students who may still need extra help and ask them when we’ll meet (not if, when).

At the level of math I teach, I’m also able to give general step by step instructions that help them solve the problems. For example, for solving one-step equations their notes may have the following in them:

  1. Identify what’s being done to the variable (adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing).
  2. Perform the inverse operation to both sides of the equal sign.
  3. Check your answer by plugging it into the original equation!*

There might be a star off to the side reminding them what inverse operations are and I’d do a lot of explaining along the way for why we do the same thing to both sides. Then, as we work examples together, I have them repeat out loud each step. Between the written steps, saying/hearing them out loud, and the repetition of it all they are usually able to get it by test time. This may not work as well in upper level classes where the steps aren’t the same every single time.

*Checking is always my last step and always gets an exclamation mark…checking your work is exciting, right?

Welcome to the twenty-first century. Students today pay less attention in class than they did a generation or two ago. They spend less time on homework and studying outside of class. They feel less responsibility for their own performance and are more likely to blame anyone and everyone else for their shortfalls. The results are exactly what you’d expect, namely lower levels of achievement. (Doubtlessly someone will soon arrive in this thread and start explaining how I’m a curmudgeonly, old person who’s merely repeating the same gripes as the ancient Sumerians did and blah blah blah, but my claims are true. I’ve taught at both the college and high school levels. A great deal of research goes into these topics, and the results are on a sound footing. See this book or this one to read the gory details.)

So, what’s the response? First of all, for help outside of class, forget it. Very few students will voluntarily give up their time during lunch or after school for academics. They view that as time which belongs to them, and hence see no reason to spend it reviewing algebra. Which, in all fairness, is exactly how I would have responded to such a suggestion when I was in high school.

For homework and study, there is again the fact that you can’t make students do what they don’t want to do. If an assignment gets too boring, they have dozens of distractions within a few feet. The best advice that I can give is try to make all assignment as interesting as possible. I entirely agree that assignments need to be in the 30-40 problem range if the material is actually to reach long-term memory. What I’m thinking of in terms of an interesting assignment is anything that varies the format, throws in some entertainment, are just gives them some motivation to pay attention. You might try the Algebra with Pizzazz series, if you haven’t already.

In the big picture, I’m afraid I don’t have any answers. The problems that you are facing are not unique to your class, your school, or even your district. They’re fundamental problems that are plaguing all of American education.

Give them credit for coming in for extra help: five extra points on the quiz, or on their homework or something. Just keep a running sign in sheet and tally it at the end of the grading period. I teach AP English (so in theory, my kids are more mature/more able to see cause and effect), and I still have to offer extra credit to get them to come in–substantial extra credit.

For a bellringer, have a question or two reviewing the previous day’s work. Allow them to use their notes to answer it (incentive to take notes). Take it up after 2 minutes, and then work the problem in front of them while the memory is still clear in their heads. For grading, just give them a point or two for each correct step so that you end up with a score of, say, 1-5. Make those extra homework points/extra quiz points. Grade them that afternoon–it’s very quick grading, and will show you exactly where they are. I do this in my economics class and it works well. In a regular math class I might do it at the END of class instead–an incentive to keep notes, pay attention: “I’ll need this tomorrow” is a long way away for some kids–“I’ll need this at the end of class” might be better.

Teach them how to study. Like “First, work the problem. Then, check the answer. Did you get it correct? No? Ok, now you have to figure out where you went wrong. Pull out your notes. Find a sample problem that looks the same. Compare the first step. Do they look the same? . . .” Kids don’t know how to study. I’ve had to teach AP student how to study with flashcards (Look at the front. Try and remember what it says on the back. Check. Did you get it right? Make 2 piles. . .)

I’m not a teacher, but let me get this straight: you’re trying to teach 70 children in one go? And they’re 15 or 16 years old? Looking at the syllabus here it looks like you’re teaching what I called O level maths 25 years ago. Have you considered halving your class size?

Quartz, she is teaching 3 sections for a total of 70 kids–so 22/class (or, more likely, a class of 15, one of 20, and one of 35 because of scheduling problems).

Doperchic, are you a new teacher? If you are, trust that it will get easier. The key to teaching anything–and the hardest thing to master–is to really understand where they are when you get them–how they think, how they reason, the mistakes they make. This is why getting them into individual tutoring is so important–they will be teaching you even as you teach them, as you come to see the weird ideas they have in their heads, the oddly simple things that trip them up. You’ll see three kids in a row make the same mistake–a mistake you never in a million years could have imagined being part of the problem–and you’ll know to go over that in class the next day. Kids think differently than adults, and they think differently than you remember yourself thinking. So get them into tutoring, and make sure that tutoring is them doing the work–trying and making mistakes that you help them correct–so that you can see where the problems are.


Teach the qualified students the actual course material, and route the laggards to remediation: develop worksheets and have the laggards self-study.

Holy crap, where do I start?

I started teaching MAT 105 at a liberal arts college just this year. Criminal justice and social work students must take at least one math class, and this is it.

The students are *completely *clueless when it comes to solving algebraic equations. I spent an entire class explaining - very slowly - how to solve a problem like 3x + 6 = 18. They *never *understood. Blank stares the whole time.

Fractions? Forget it. Negative numbers? No way. Exponents? Yea, right.

I have absolutely no idea how these students got through high school. No idea. What the hell goes on in high school nowadays? :eek:

I can’t teach from the book; the book requires the student to calculate a percentages, and work with variables. No can do.

It’s very trying. I could easily flunk every student, but I probably wouldn’t be teaching there long if I did. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Hmm, I am guessing the book I am forced to use is based on “Discovery Math.” The book is full of stories, and it tries to teach math by talking about it. Sounds good, right? Nope - it’s shit. If you want to learn math, you must go through the pain of understanding the logic and rules of - yep, you guessed it - math! There’s no way around it.

I am guessing the “Discovery Math” approach was invented by morons who believed learning rules and logic is not politically correct.

I was a terrible math student.

The biggest problem is that I just didn’t see any need for it.

Math, to me, was a ridiculous bunch of grunt work made up by some evil wizard just to torture me. I mean, I had to take one number and use some bizarre and arbitrary system to turn it into another number…to what ends? It had no bearing on real life. It was just something I had to do to get into college.

So I limped along. I never learned the basics. I never really cared to learn the basics. So I just couldn’t do the more advanced stuff, even if I had cared about it. Homework was a trial for me. I’d copy when I could, make stuff up when I couldn’t. Otherwise I’d spend literally hours staring at blank pages doing all this work and still getting the wrong answers. I’d limp through the tests and pray to pass. And hell no I wouldn’t go to the teacher at lunch! Math caused me enough pain and anguish as it was.

Honestly, I still don’t miss not learning math. I had to cram math to take the GREs, some 10 years after high school. And I managed to learn a bit then, because it had a purpose. But other than that I managed to spend decades without ever once having any reason to even think about algebra beyond it’s most basic forms. It literally never comes up.

I don’t have any answers, but maybe that provides some insight into your students. Maybe some math teacher out there has managed to convince their students that what they are slaving over is useful. But nobody has managed to do that for me!