If at first you do succeed…

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Little accomplishments can add up to big success

By Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville


“The most motivating thing in the world is success. A victory gives the motivation for the next battle.”

So you’ve been weight training for five years now, you’ve taken a breather over the summer, and it’s time to get back to it. At the beginning of your sixth year you should be able to bench press 250 pounds. Now go do it. Oh, you can’t? Try again. In fact, try again – multiple times – each and every day from August 12 until May 21. And, by the way, no, you may not practice with smaller weights. Still can’t do it? Well get ready, because next year you’ll be required to bench 300!

I don’t know about you, but if I went to the gym and was required to try to lift something way more than I could possibly lift, I wouldn’t stay motivated for a day, much less and entire school year. But this is what is happening to so many of today’s students. They are expected to do math that they don’t understand, day after day, and we try to motivate them with grades, treats, or whatever we think will do the trick. No one will be motivated for long if they are expected to accomplish the impossible, and if you’ve been slipping since second grade, your fifth grade math is truly all but impossible.

The most motivating thing in the world is success. A victory gives the motivation for the next battle. Math is no different. Working some math at the student’s level (the student’s level, not the level at which they are expected to be) gives some victories that will motivate them to give that school math another shot. I have seen this countless times at my learning center. We give our new student problems that are on their level and start to move them forward, and within a month their math grade at school improves. A month is not long enough for them to get caught up on all of the math they haven’t mastered over the years, but having the right materials in front of that student builds confidence, which in turn causes them to be motivated to try hard and ask questions at school.

Bear in mind that we’re not talking about “easy math” here. We’re talking about a real workout – we want the level where it will cause a real sweat, but is achievable. It’s a balancing act: Too easy and they know it’s not helping, too hard and they continue to be shut down.

Your best opportunity get this started is in the first three weeks (give or take) of school. They will likely be doing some review from the previous year, so you have a chance to get that motivation rolling before the new material hits. Then keep it rolling. Two or three times per week spend some time on the foundations that keep them encouraged (and just happen to be closing the gap as well), then they’ll need less help on today’s material because they won’t feel defeated.

This is what I’ve seen for years now when working with students. A two-pronged approach where we build a curriculum to meet your student right where he or she is, and augment with help on today’s work as needed. It does wonders for your student’s self-confidence and motivation while building a strong foundation that will serve him or her well for years to come.

Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1988. He pursued graduate studies in Materials Science & Engineering while on the Research Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Mike has had a life-long love of mathematics and teaching, and feels that math is not about learning to be ready for the next math class – it’s about learning to think.

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