The Math Success Curve: Maturity and Familiarity

The other day I was helping one of my algebra 2 students work a challenging problem. I was using all sorts of algebra terminology (which she understood), and I was able to guide her easily through the problem. It suddenly dawned on me that this was a student that came to me two years before as an absolute math-hater. She had no self-confidence and thought she was dumb in math. Her mom was about to completely give up trying to get her through algebra 1. So, what transformed her from barely being able to do a single algebra problem (and hating it) to being a very competent algebra 2 student?

I can answer that in two words: Maturity and Familiarity.

By “maturity” I just mean growing a little older, which happens to every single student. It is amazing the difference between how a student thinks as a 9th grader and how they think as an 11th grader. They naturally grow in the ability to understand abstract topics.

By “familiarity” I mean that when the brain is familiar with something, it is far easier to learn new things related to that particular topic. When students take algebra 1, it tends to be brand new. The brain has nothing to latch onto. There is nothing “familiar” about it, so it is difficult for a lot of students to grasp, and it is easily forgotten. This of course leads students down the path of losing self-confidence in math, feeling dumb, experiencing math anxiety, etc. If students can go through a properly spaced and taught algebra 1 course (particularly designed for students who struggle with it), their brain will slowly begin to absorb the material. Anxiety will begin to decrease, and learning will take place.

It might seem slow at first, but the main goal is just to make progress. Then, the following year when the student is in geometry, they get to see a lot of algebra 1 material again, but this time it has something to latch onto in their brain. They are suddenly able to remember it better and talk intelligently about it. Then, when they are in algebra 2, they can handle the abstract concepts of algebra 1 fairly easily, and learn the new concepts related to it because it is all “familiar.” This is what I call the math success curve. I so easily forget how far my students have grown from their start of algebra 1 to their completion of algebra 2 and I want to encourage you that the same will be true of your high school student.

“Maturity” and “Familiarity” happen independent of a particular math curriculum, math program, or teaching. This naturally happens to all students. You can certainly improve and enhance the experience by selecting appropriate curriculum and teaching, but it will happen to all students regardless. So, don’t assume the way your student struggles grasping algebra 1 concepts will always be the way they learn math. Often times, this is simply not the case and you will be pleased to see how they progress along the math success curve!

-David Denison

P.S. If you’d like help planning math for your high schooler, you can get a copy of my free guide here. Also, check out our website for other free resources.


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