Developing Math Skills

This page describes some of the ways we try to develop students’ math skills, and how parents can make the most of their critical role in that process.


What does Math Club do for students?

Our mission is to build math skills for competitions and beyond.

In other words, we prepare them to compete in math contests against some of the highest-performing public and private schools in the state.  In doing so, we also give them a foundation for higher mathematics.

Older students who have been through the program tell us that it works.  Not only that, but they have fond memories of the friendships, knowledge, and accomplishments that they build.


How are students supposed to learn so much math, so fast?

It does seem daunting to go from 3rd grade Math Club (where the students are still grappling with arithmetic) to 6th grade Math Club (where the students are competing in high-level contests, in some cases against top 8th-graders).  There are two keys to making this work:

(1) Putting in effort:  In math club class, students should pay attention.  If there’s something or someone that is keeping them from paying attention, they need to tell the coach right away (or tell you so that you can tell the coach).  Students need to actually do the assigned homework.

(2) Making the effort effective:  After doing a math problem, students should look at the solution — either what the coach puts on the board, or the answer key or written-out solutions provided with the homework.  Do you understand it?  Can you remember the key details (not necessarily all the details, just the key ones) so that you can do it again?

The first time students see a concept, it is surprising and uncomfortable.  Each successive time, it becomes less surprising and more comfortable.  Eventually — through trying, faltering, understanding, retrying — students get to the point where they have seen virtually all the tricks and curveballs that math-contest writers can throw at them.  This is the path to success.


How can I help my student succeed in Math Club?

The number one key to a student’s success in math club is parent involvement.  If you’re a Math Club parent, read the coach’s emails, budget time for math club activities in the family calendar, help your student go over the answers and solutions for an assignment (after they have worked on it, to the time limit, independently), volunteer for math club activities.  The more you treat it as important, the more the message will resonate with your student.


My child seems to be struggling and falling behind.  Should I be concerned?

As a parent you have every right to be concerned if you think your child is struggling.  Usually they are OK but simply outside the comfort zone.  But sometimes it means that they are simply not reaching their potential, for whatever reason.

See the above for the two-step process:  putting in the effort, making the effort effective.  Is your student following that process?

Watch as your student does a math problem.  Have them talk it out if they are comfortable doing so.  They should be spending a little time deciding on a plan, then following the plan, then answering the question that was asked and checking their work.

Math is always done in steps.  Are they doing all the steps, not just their favorite ones?  There is reading involved.  Are they reading the problems carefully?  There are tricks to doing math quickly.  Are they applying those tricks that they’ve learned?

Is there something going on in the math club class — a problem with another student, a communication issue with the coach, a feeling of being overwhelmed or intimidated?  Something might be going on that the coach is not aware of.  Please let the coach or club coordinator know right away if you suspect a problem.  We may also contact you if we have observations or suggestions to give.


I noticed that my student picks up on some topics right away but has difficulty with others.  What is happening?

Different children develop at different rates, and their interests and learning styles are highly variable.  It’s important to be patient with them.  Where they are at in their regular schoolwork and math curriculum can also be a factor.

Even if they only learn one major concept a month, they wours learn 8 or 9 throughout the year, which is significant progress!  Sometimes students need a few weeks to process one topic, whereas a different topic might come to them in a day or two.


Do you give out report cards or evaluations of students?

We do not formally evaluate students.  But your student’s coach will almost always give you an evaluation and some pointers if you request it.  We get to know pretty quickly what each student is capable of and what s/he struggles with.  But we don’t have the bandwidth to send individualized emails to everyone that may or may not be read.


It seems like my student is learning a lot of tricks instead of fundamentals.  Shouldn’t we be teaching math the “right “way?

The way your student is learning math may be different from what you learned.  This is intentional.  We have to distill higher-level concepts into methods that students can understand and reliably use under time pressure.  And we have to deliver those concepts in a way that works with their level of brain development.

Are we teaching just “tricks”?  Well, “methods” and “tricks” are really the same thing.  Sometimes the methods we learned in school are not as efficient or pedagogically effective as they could have been.

If you think you see a way that something could be taught better, please check in with your student’s coach, but please also understand that the coach also has to use a method that works for them as well!

It is certainly fine to teach your own student an alternate method for doing something.  But please do it in the spirit of intellectual flexibility — in other words, show them that there is more than one way to solve a problem and let them decide for themselves which works better for them.

Also keep in mind that their brains are developing.  Some abstract methods are not logical for them at a young age.  We can certainly teach algebra to 4th graders (it’s essentially fill-in-the-blank!) but applying it to word problems is tough for them.  At higher grades it gradually gets easier, but until then, we prefer methods that are more efficient (to their brains) than algebra.


A lot of these math-contest problems seem to involve algebra.  Why aren’t you teaching the kids how to set up and solve equations?

Yes, it is true that a working knowledge of algebra would allow students to cruise through these problems.  But again, this is a question of efficiency and pedagogy.

Younger children in 3rd and 4th grades will not understand the importance of algebra, even though we will be laying the foundations for it.  If you show them a simple algebra problem and solve it with x, they’ll say, “Why do we need x when the problem is so simple and we know the answer?”  And if you show them a more complex algebra problem, they’ll say, “I just don’t get it!”

In 5th and 6th grades they will start to get it more and we will be putting x’s on the board on a more regular basis and they will start to get it more.


What should I do with my child over the summer to prepare them for next year?

I’ve compiled a list of suggestions here.