Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet?

By Rachelle Hawtof
Math Department
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

Ever gone on a really long car ride?  I don’t care how old you are, we all think the same thing at some point in the ride.  Are we there yet?  How much longer?

Unfortunately, I think this is the way many students feel about the developmental math classes they are required to take.  They don’t see the utility or the fun in mathematics.  Instead, it’s a long tedious drive. 

Many students have been discouraged with repeated failure and this only makes things worse.   Even though many of my students don’t see the real need for these developmental courses, I tell them that not only will they use this math in their everyday lives, but also, that it’s a brain workout!  Like doing push-ups at the gym, math exercises strengthen your brain’s ability to think and problem solve, and who doesn’t need that?!

Even though I try to show students the ways that math will be beneficial to them, many are still not convinced or don’t feel good about being in a developmental course for one semester or (in most cases) two.

This is where my job comes into play.  Not only do I need to teach my students math, but I need to let them have fun so that it’s not that long boring car ride.  They need to want to come to class (which is half the battle) and they have to enjoy themselves when they’re there.

As a teacher (and as someone who has not always understood math easily), I have found two ways in particular to help my developmental students.

The first technique that I use is to make math a little less formal.


Many of my students are math phobic, so when I explain a new idea or concept, I explain it formally and then I use an analogy that will help them relate math to something they already know.  Most of the time, I end up relating math to the things I know and love: food, my kids, and cleaning.  (For the record, I don’t love cleaning, but I love the end result.)

For example, when we factor perfect square trinomials, I tell my class that we’re working with double stuffed Oreos, because the middle two terms are doubled.  When it’s factored, you can even see the “double” or the 2 in the final answer.   (Of course I bring in Oreos.)

When we reduce fractions and cancel like factors, we are really cleaning out our closet and throwing out repeats.

When we discuss what a function is and that for every x, there is only one y, I tell my students to imagine walking in a cafeteria line and taking one thing that they want, but they can’t go back for seconds.

When we talk about finding a common denominator, I tell my students that this new denominator is like the magic pair of pants (just like in the movie Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) that will magically fit everyone.  Every denominator (or person) will be able to fit into this new pair of pants (or common denominator).

I carry these analogies out while explaining the entire concept.  It is very silly at times, because I make up stories as we go.  These analogies are a break from the serious nature of math.  We laugh in class, because I know I’m being ridiculous.  It gives my students a way to relax and enjoy themselves.  Most importantly, they have a way to remember the math that makes sense to them and they have fun doing it.

The second way I try to help my students is by giving them a way to organize their thoughts.


Over many years, I have witnessed my developmental math students struggle with organization.  They don’t know where a chapter is headed many times and they don’t know what they should retain from each lesson.

My idea to help with this is small.  Literally.  

At the start of every chapter, everyone gets a 4×6 index card.  As we complete an important idea, I tell my students that this is a key point that belongs on their index card.  I even tell them what order to arrange the items on their card.

Then I have students put anything additional on their card that will serve as a good reminder or example for them in a day or two when they forget why they wrote what they did on their card!  For example, we just finished a chapter on factoring.  My students have on their index card to try factoring using greatest common factors first, factoring by grouping second, perfect square trinomials third, and so on.

My students really like the cards because it helps them see the big picture.  We go over these note cards repeatedly.  It helps them see where we’re going, and because the topics don’t seem so isolated, students retain their learning a little bit better.

Many times they ask if they can use their card on the test.  No such luck.  They don’t realize that they don’t need the cards by the end of the chapter.

Selfishly, using ideas like these make my job fun.  I once told my class that I teach the way I do to entertain myself.  It’s true.  We all need to relax a little and enjoy what we’re doing.  That really long car ride doesn’t have to be miserable.  We need to enjoy the scenery and the conversation. It makes that long car ride a really nice trip.

3 thoughts on “Are We There Yet?

  1. Here is a link to a video that relates to Rachelle’s idea that “not only will they use this math in their everyday lives, but also, that it’s a brain workout! Like doing push-ups at the gym, math exercises strengthen your brain’s ability to think and problem solve”:

    Seeing this could give students a little boost when they are struggling with class material.


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