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Why Do Kids Struggle With Algebra?

Sep 23, 2018

Why do kids struggle with Algebra?

We’ve asked algebra teachers what skills they wish their students were better at coming into Algebra class? Their answers were always the same 3 skills: Multiplication facts, Fractions, and Integers.  So why are kids universally weak in these 3 areas?

  • Multiplication facts – Most kids just don’t know them well enough. They’ve learned a song or jingle to remember instead of just learning an individual fact, or become over reliant on calculators and chromebooks. They may lack the ability to check the reasonableness of the remembered guess or the answer given by the calculator. (Plus, there are many areas of Algebra where calculators cannot help). Deep familiarity with the order of numbers, established early on by counting - from any number, to any number, by any number - forms an early understanding of multiplication that helps them establish the reasonableness of the anwer.  Later, kids are introduced to factors and multiples essential for fraction multiplication, common in Algebra. Since decimals are also commonly used, place value needs to be learned deeply as well.
  • Fractions - In all of math, fractions are the skill that most kids lack. Usually when a fraction shows up in a problem, there is no quick review given to remind students how to do it. In fact, we see many students skip the problems that contain fractions. The problem is, most of your daily life contains fractions: 1/2 tank of gas, 5/8" wrench, 3/4 cup of sugar. Our kids need to feel comfortable with fractions, so they can function as adults.  For more information on why kids struggle with fractions, visit our fractions page.
  • Integers – Positives and Negatives. The two questions we are asked all the time are, “Do I add or subtract?” and, “Is the answer positive or negative?” If you depend on remembering the rules, you will probably get something backwards. Instead, if you think of the number line as a ladder, it makes more sense. If 0 is ground level,  we go up (Get bigger) when we add and go down  (get smaller) when we subtract. //s3.amazonaws.com/www.mathnasium.com/upload/596/images/integer%20ladder%203.jpgIt also helps to remember that a negative sign just means we are doing the opposite.  Now an integer problem becomes a series of three questions:
  • Where do we start?
  • Which direction are we going? (are we getting bigger or smaller)
  • By how much?

So, let’s say we are trying to figure out -3 + -4. We start at -3. Then we need to add, which usually means we get bigger. But we are adding a negative number, so we do the opposite. This means we are actually getting smaller by 4, so we end up at -7. (See the graphic for example)

The fact is – unless your child has a solid foundation in these skills and confidence in their ability, they will continue to struggle in Algebra and beyond. The skills and concepts are only going to build and become more complex, so making sure they know what they are doing now will set them up for success.

 

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