How to Boost Math and Science Skills

Math and science are often not students’ most beloved subjects. There are usually a few in every class that really enjoy STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), but generally what you hear is that math and science are “too hard” or “boring.” In several developed countries, such as the U.S., there has been a decline in test scores in STEM subjects.
This has lead to more research in how to get students, especially female students, interested in math and science and how to keep them interested. Boosting these skills requires a shift of teaching methods in the classroom, but students can also get help from parents in the same ways at home.

One common complaint from students in math and science classes is “When am I ever going to use this?” Students often have the idea that because they don’t want to be a biologist, biology isn’t going to matter in their lives. What they don’t realize is that math and science are all around us and are becoming more important every day. In terms of future employment, STEM subjects are crucial in various industries. In the tech and finance industries, math is fundamental. The health industry also relies on professionals with math and science backgrounds not only to become the next generation of doctors, but also to conduct research to combat diseases. Both math and science teach the problem solving skills that are necessary for all aspects of adult life and being able to do basic math is important for even simple transactions.

Here are some ideas for how to help boost math and science skills both in and outside the classroom:

Teamwork

Math and science both involve problem solving. We all know how it feels to work on a problem and hit a wall where you just can’t figure out what to do next. Worse is when you work on the problem and get an answer, only to realize that it’s the wrong answer and you need to figure out what you did wrong. In these cases, as the old saying goes, two heads are better than one.
Working in groups can help students get past roadblocks like these and problem solve together. This teamwork can help ease the frustration they encounter while trying to solve problems, which is one of the reasons some students dislike STEM subjects. Using the buddy system can give students both the academic and emotional support to overcome any difficulties they might encounter and use teamwork instead of getting frustrated or giving up.

While working on math and science, there are several ways to group students. Pairing students with a partner who has a slightly higher ability can help weaker students gain confidence in the material. The stronger student essentially acts like a tutor, but without the weaker student needing to ask for help. This is especially helpful for students who are too ashamed to ask for help from the teacher. Working together with a classmate can help students review the material and practice working through the problems together, avoiding any vexing roadblocks with the help of the stronger student.

Another option is to work with a tutor, mentor, or even a parent. In this case, the key is to not give the students the answer. Giving them the answer, while helping avoid frustration, doesn’t force them to strengthen their problem solving skills and can lead them getting more behind in class. Instead, it is best to nudge the student in the right direction through questions. Ask them what the next step is and then ask why. Get them actively thinking about why we do each step in a problem. Once they are able to come up with the steps with guided help, it will be much easier for them to follow the same steps the next time on their own. This also pushes them to think actively about how to solve problems, rather than memorizing steps.

Don’t memorize, understand

Thinking actively leads us to the next tip for boosting math and science skills. Traditionally, math and science are taught in a way that encourages students to memorize information instead of understanding it. Memorization can help students pass a test, but it doesn’t foster an environment where students are engaged in their learning and interested in the material. It also doesn’t commit the information to long-term memory, meaning students memorize it for the test and then immediately forget it.

This causes issues especially with STEM subjects because the material tends to build on top of  previous topics. You can’t learn to divide if you don’t understand the concept of multiplication. To allow students to progress effectively through each level of math and science as classes get more difficult, it’s important they understand the material from the previous class.

So how do you get students out of the habit of memorizing? One idea is to change how they’re being tested. If you create a test that asks students to regurgitate information, students will study for the test by memorizing the information. To avoid this rote memorization, it’s important to teach and test students in a way that makes them actively think about the material. Combining
two types of problems or two topics can help make students take what they’ve learned and apply it in different ways. This is can help them escape the trap of memorizing material.

Actively engage through hands-on learning

Another way to avoid rote memorization is by actively engaging students through hands-on learning. When students aren’t engaged in the material, they aren’t paying attention, which can lead to behavior issues and a lack of interest in the subject. Engaged students are interested, learning, and internalizing the material. Math and science can both be dry, boring classes if there
is too much emphasis on lecturing. Instead, move away from lecture-based classes and focus on hands-on learning.

Hands-on learning is beneficial for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it gives students an experiential reference point for the material. Learning about anatomy can be boring if a teacher is just pointing to different body parts and explaining what each one does. But if students are able to relate their learning to an experiment or activity that they enjoyed, it helps them remember the material better and create enthusiasm about the topic. Students would be more likely to remember anatomy if they have had the hands-on experience of dissecting a frog because they will remember the experience and therefore the information that goes along with it. You are less likely to remember details from a lecture, but you remember experiences you have had. 

Secondly, hands-on learning helps students’ spatial thinking skills and lets the material come off the page and into the real world. Spatial thinking skills are crucial for math and science, but when learning out of a textbook, it can be hard for children to understand how math and science are applied in real life. By creating opportunities to show topics in 3-D or using materials students can touch and hold, you allow students to engage their spatial reasoning and see a real-world version of what they are learning. This helps students to see how math and science apply to the world around them, and can even encourage them to start seeing math or science problems in their daily lives. While this can be helpful for them understand how important math and science are, it also can help combat the constant questions of “When am I ever going to use this?”

All of these methods for boosting math and science skills can be used in and outside the classroom. If a student isn’t receiving the information in a way that is engaging during class, a parent or tutor can help come up with experiments or activities to help him or her understand and become interested in the material. There are also lots of videos and tutoring websites online that show material along with interactive games and videos that help engage students. With the importance of math and science in today’s world and for future employment, it is important that learning environments are conducive to engaging students in STEM subjects. Through teamwork, avoiding memorization, and hands-on learning, we can help foster interest and boost skills these “difficult” subjects.