Why So Many Kids Struggle With Algebra?

Jun 12, 2018 | Cambridge


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 help them count up by instead of just learning an individual fact.  This makes them always have to take the long counting route to come up with the answer. If they get off on their counting along the way, they end up at the wrong answer. Since Algebra has so much multiplication in it, the faster they can pull the facts from memory, the more efficient and less frustrating the work is going to be. At this point in school, kids are also now able to use calculators, so they start to get out of practice on their basic skills. They lose the ability to check the reasonableness of the answer given by the calculator. In fact, there are many areas of Algebra where calculators cannot help.
  • 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 problems that contain fractions. The challenge is, most of your daily life contains fractions: 1/2 tank of gas, 5/8" wrench, 3/4 cup of sugar, etc. 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. It 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 meanswe 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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