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Improving Students' Math Skills for Science Class

Polly Dornette
Product Developer

Math is an integral part of science, yet many students enter science courses lacking basic mathematical skills. Chemistry students may struggle for weeks trying to learn about buffers because they have no idea what a logarithm is. Biology students may cruise along as they learn how to use a microscope, only to find they need a calculator to multiply by 10 for the total magnification. Physics students may not be able to solve for mass because they don’t understand basic algebra when looking at the equation F=ma. And students in all classes panic when they learn that they can’t use their calculators on many standardized exams.

Here are some tips to find your students’ mathematical weaknesses and minimize their anxiety (and yours too!) when they take standardized tests.

  1. Do not assume your students learned (or retained) a math skill from a previous math class.
  2. Give a simple diagnostic math quiz the first day of class—no calculators allowed. See where your students are struggling mathematically. Determine which basic math concepts are important for your course. Limit the questions to about 10 and use single-digit numbers, unless specifically testing students on fractions, decimals, or powers of 10.
  3. Work with the math teachers. Use them as a resource to teach the concepts, or have them provide you with manipulatives to demonstrate a concept. Provide the math teachers with sample lab data that they can use when writing questions.
  4. Start each unit with a math lesson. Before diving into buffers, work with students on logarithms, and go over exponents before covering PCR. If your students are comfortable with the math, they will learn the concepts more easily.
  5. Teach students how to estimate. This is a helpful standardized test-taking skill that allows students to eliminate incorrect multiple-choice answers, thereby increasing their odds of selecting the right answer. For example, when you teach gas laws, ask students to predict if a variable will increase or decrease before they solve the problem.
  6. When you perform demonstrations, don't skip over the math. Use the data from the demonstration to work through any related math problems. The data coupled with the visual demonstration will reinforce the science concepts.
  7. Make sure your students understand measurements of central tendency (mean, median, and mode). Frequently discuss when it is appropriate to use each method.
  8. Require students to graph their data and even graph sample data sets on an XY scatter plot whenever possible. Graphs reinforce relationships between numbers and can make the information easier to understand—especially for visual learners.
  9. Use familiar items to teach unfamiliar concepts. For example, use an egg carton containing 1 dozen eggs to help students better understand the concept of a mole.
  10. Most important, keep with it! Reinforce the math in every lesson.
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