"Math Survivalism" is a common approach, but it's not the best way to succeed in math. Memorizing steps for homework won't help when you need to apply your knowledge creatively, so it’s important to shift your focus to building foundational skills and knowledge that will help you succeed long term. In this article, ESM Prep math expert Brena Adams shares her best advice for how to stop just surviving, and start thriving, in math!

Are you a student who's able to memorize the steps to a math process in order to get a decent grade on a test or quiz, but does not actually understand why that process works? Then you may be a Math Survivalist!

Math is cumulative. Each class in a math sequence *assumes* that you still remember the material from your previous math classes.

Especially if math isn’t your favorite class, it can be very easy to memorize steps and get through homework assignments without really understanding the material. If test questions require you to creatively apply an understanding of the material to a new scenario, those memorized steps don’t always help.

Math Survivalism is preparing for the next test and not for the big picture. You can make a conscious effort to shift from Math Survivalism to understanding *why* different math processes work.

Eventually, the amount of conceptual background needed to succeed in a math class catches up to Math Survivalists. Classes such as Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus rely heavily on a deep understanding of fundamental math concepts, so students who tend to instantly forget important concepts in order to make room to memorize the next one ultimately struggle at some point in one of these classes.

Math Survivalism also makes it **much **more difficult to succeed on the ACT and SAT Math sections. When a student is only comfortable completing many questions on one concept in one way, taking tests that switch concepts from question to question and require you to think more abstractly about concepts can be a huge challenge. We usually recommend that our Math Survivalists start test prep earlier than other students in order to break the cycle and change how they perceive math as a whole.

It's a phrase that has frustrated many high achieving students. Why do you have to show your work if you got the right answer?

Math is a thought *process*, a way of cracking puzzles. If you make a practice of articulating your process, it is more scalable: you’re more likely to be able to apply that process to a different problem or as a small step in solving a bigger problem.

Also, your teacher might not only give you partial credit, but also constructive feedback.

If you struggle with timing on tests, do a first pass to snap up all of the easy points that you can and to read each question. Try to keep any scratch work organized enough that you can pick up where you left off if a question is taking too long (and so that your teacher has something to give partial points for!). You might discover that good “scratch work” helps you efficiently solve some of the hard questions.

Show your work on homework, even if it isn’t graded for that. Articulating your thoughts is a *practice*, and you want to practice what you want to become permanent.

You won’t always see the finish line on a question when you start the question, so really practice communicating with yourself in case you choose to go back to a question and look over your “scratch work”.

Another way to practice articulating (for your own learning) is to teach the *concept *(not the steps) to someone else.

- Teach a younger sibling or relative so that they learn the material before they’re being graded on it.
- Teach your parents to share some of what you’ve been learning.
- Take turns teaching your peers a question or a concept to study together.
- Explain your thought process to your teacher or to a tutor to get constructive feedback.
- If nothing else, teach yourself out loud! Even speaking your steps out loud can help solidify your understanding and give your inner dialogue confidence on tests.

Do more than the assigned questions.

Some homework assignments are graded on completion. All homework assignments are limited to the number of questions your teacher feels they can grade while staying sane.

Just doing the assigned homework questions is a good checkpoint but not the whole story. Just reviewing the questions you already completed won’t necessarily prepare you for future questions, so you should seek out more questions to practice.

Where can you find more practice?

- Your textbook: work through the examples in the text before checking the solutions they have written out. Look for “Answers to Selected Problems” and use those questions for extra practice. If you’re short on time, go to the questions at the end of the textbook question set. These are typically application problems or conceptual problems.
- Use any key phrases that your teacher has used to start a lecture, that you’ve seen at the top of worksheets, or that are in chapter labels for textbook homework sets to look up similar problems on Khan Academy or Kuta. Khan Academy gives immediate feedback, and the free Kuta worksheets have the answers at the end of each document.
- Try writing questions for your peers and solving each other’s questions. You really have to dissect a question in order to write a similar one.

If, as an example, you just started Calculus and realized that fractions are more complicated than you thought, *it is okay to ask for help understanding fractions.*

The foundation skills are a big deal, and you can survive through a lot of math before you realize you have a couple cracks in your foundation. Some concepts that are taught in elementary school (0, place values, negatives) or middle school (rational vs irrational numbers) have been highly contentious throughout human history because they aren’t simple.

If reading this has helped you realize you're a Math Survivalist, great! We have a number of math nerds on staff who would love nothing more than converting a Math Survivalist and helping them thrive this year and into their future math classes.