Why is it that in math, students do well on practice problems and understand what’s going on during class, but then fail to do well on tests? This is a phenomenon I see regularly with my private coaching clients. They ace their assignments but struggle to ace the tests. Why is this? More importantly, what can you do about it?
Often times, when students do math homework they will have their lecture notes, textbook, and/or the internet open to help them work through their problem sets. This isn’t always the case, especially when what was covered in class doesn’t seem too difficult. For most students, there is a period of time during which they are still “getting” the concepts and encoding the information into their brains. (See How the Brain Learns to read about encoding). The challenge with doing problems in the way mentioned above, is that when you take the test, you most likely won’t be able to have access to your notes so practicing problems in this way doesn’t help you retain the information. Another thing that happens when you do your homework with your notes is that you can develop an “Illusion of Mastery” which means that you think you know the material but will find that you don’t, once you take those notes away.
In order to make sure you really know the material and that the math is now in your long term memory, I recommend that you try to do your practice problems without any reference notes. Here’s how I recommend doing it. I call it "Doing math without looking:"
- Review your notes, practice problems that you have already completed, and textbook pages and then set them aside.
- Work through remaining problems without looking at your notes, until you get stuck. If you do get stuck, review your notes and and then set them aside before proceeding.
- Continue working through your problem set stopping to review reference materials only when you get stuck and working through problems without looking at your notes.
By doing your problem sets this way, you are actually testing yourself to see what information is in your long term memory and what still needs to be learned. In addition, this means that you will be more prepared for tests because you will have been testing yourself all along, and not waiting until just before the test to review the material and figure out what you still don't understand.
The students I’ve been working with this Fall have all switched over to this method and one of them said to me this week, “I didn’t think I was ready for my math quiz, but when I took it, I did okay.” Because he’d been “testing” himself all week, the material was more cemented in his brain and he was able to recall it more easily for his quiz.
In summary, think of your math homework as an opportunity to do two things at once. You’ll be completing homework while also testing your knowledge. This will help you to quickly figure out what you don’t know and therefore, will help you prepare for upcoming tests and quizzes along the way.
Lesley Martin has been working in education over the last 20 years. She currently works with students privately as an Academic Success Coach and is the CEO of ClassTracker, a company she founded that creates customized academic planners for middle and high schools and students. Lesley has published two books: Where’s My Stuff: The Ultimate Teen Organizing Guide and Make the Grade: Everything you need to Study Better, Stress Less, and Succeed in School.