Passport to Advanced Math
By Paul Lim | Kaplan SAT & ACT Trainer
Sarah (not her real name) was a very bright student since she started school. Her teachers said that she was very good in math and can compute all the problems and give out all the correct answers, all without putting anything down on paper. Other students envy her and consider her to be the smartest person in the class. She enjoyed all the attention and importance that parents, teachers, and students heaped upon her. But something happened when she entered secondary school. Her math grades started falling and she could no longer keep up with her work. She tried very hard but still, her grades kept falling. Parents and teachers were at a loss. They don’t know what has happened to her. How come a student who was so promising in math suddenly could not handle her math homework? What went wrong?
Does this sound familiar? Do you or anyone you know have a similar experience? The above incident, though real, is not uncommon, especially among students who were good in math when they were in primary school. Because math at the primary school level is mostly about arithmetic (add, subtract, multiply, and divide with real numbers). Once they learned all the rules, they can perform most of the operations without trouble. It would be even better if they can do all these in their heads, without calculator or paper and pencil. Parents and teachers like this kind of students, and most of them think this is the epitome of mathematical abilities and they even encourage them to become faster and more accurate. However, this could not be further from the truth. In our age of computer technology, no human brain can compute numbers faster and more accurately than a cheap $10 calculator. Is this what we want our children to compete against in the future? A $10 calculator?
Once students get into secondary school, the math is no longer about arithmetic; it is mostly about algebra. They need to outgrow old habits and learn new ones. They need to be able to solve problems and equations, instead of just computing numbers. But in many cases like Sarah, these students hit a wall when they encounter Algebra. They cannot grasp numbers that are not real numbers but variables like x, y, and z. They are unable to manipulate these variables because they seem to be too abstract. They try to compensate for this inability by trying to “plug in” real numbers into them and then try out these numbers, one at a time. As a result, they wasted a lot of time and have limited success. They become more and more confused and their math grades keep falling.
Often, I see these students in my SAT/ACT classes. They have neglected their math for so long that they don’t remember when their problems started. They do not use algebra to solve the problems; instead, they use arithmetic. Since SAT and ACT tests are mostly multiple choice, they “plug-in” the choices and see which one would fit. The process becomes very tedious and the more they plug-in, the more confused they get and the more time they need to solve the problem. As a result, they end up not able to finish the whole test. They become more and more frustrated and fall farther and farther behind. By the time they start to prepare for SAT/ACT, there is just not enough time to remedy these many years of neglect.
SAT calls this the “Passport to Advanced Math” and this is an apt analogy. It deals with the ability to “analyze, manipulate, and re-write” expressions and solve equations. All higher math depends on this ability of algebraic manipulations. If your children exhibit any of these symptoms, don’t expect these problems to go away with time. Intervene early. Find out exactly what their problems are and help them to overcome them with the right knowledge and skills. Do not wait until SAT and ACT, because by then, it may be too late.
Mr. Paul Lim
Kaplan SAT and ACT Trainer
MBA, National University of Singapore
B.Sc., Harvey Mudd College
- Over 15+ years of experience in teaching SAT and ACT
- Graduated from a prestigious U.S. college
- Proven record in helping students achieve a perfect subject section score of 800
- Author of a book on effective learning strategies for mastering vocabulary
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