Last year, I finally taught this study skill, and while I’m thrilled with the results, I feel like bonking myself upside the head for not doing it sooner. The simple but crucial study skill? Setting up one’s work in a way that is organized, easy-to-read, and shows clear thinking. This applied across all subjects, but as math was the area where I was seeing the most chaos, it’s where I focused my effort.
Before teaching this study skill
Prior to last year, I encouraged my students with the following pseudo-helpful prompts:
Subsequent to these reminders, there would be a modest bump in the quality of work, but it seldom stuck. After an assignment or two, their work would slough back to its previous state. Non-existent margins. (Haha! I just reminded myself of the teacher in A Christmas Story. “Margins! Margins!”) Computations placed willy-nilly on a page, wherever they could fit it. Work that was hard to follow, with little to no white space.
It wasn’t fun for me, they weren’t learning, and they were undoubtedly getting annoyed by my repeated reminders. The time this took (including time correcting the disorganized work and the time they spent having to redo it), coupled with frustration on both sides, woke me up to this realization:
I have to schedule time to teach this study skill.
Study Skill Tools
Basic tools that students will need, of course, are pencils and paper. But a few additional supplies will make the study skill of showing one’s work not only easier to read, but more fun as well!
Some tools you can make available to your students are the following:
- rulers — transparent and bendable ones are your best bet. They’re slightly more expensive, but worth it.
- good erasers — the little ones that come on pencils don’t cut it. Kids are less likely to erase completely if their pencil’s eraser is getting down the the nub.
- pens in a couple of colors
If you want to go the extra mile, you can make these available:
- gel pens (Sparkly and scented will win you Teacher of the Year)
- colored pencils (for tips on organizing these, go here.)
- geometry templates
This may feel like overkill, but it actually makes showing one’s work way more fun and gives kids room for creativity. With these tools, they’ll be a lot more invested, and the lessons will stick.
I’ve created free notebook inserts/bookmarks for you to print for your kiddos. Go here to get your free download.
Pick your paper
There are basically three choices of paper to use: plain, lined, and graph.
I prefer graph paper for showing math work, so I always have plenty of that on hand. You can find graph paper with larger or smaller squares. Try a variety and encourage your kids to experiment to see which works best for their writing and style. You can also find student notebooks with graph paper.
Study skill: Set up paper
You know that student who writes from one end of the paper to the other? While we applaud her effort to conserve trees, it can be a nightmare for one’s eyesight. Taking the time to demonstrate margins and assignment set-up will pay off.
If they’re using graph paper, instruct them to go about four boxes from the left and four boxes from the top. (This, of course, varies depending on your paper and the size of the boxes.)
Instruct them to write their first and last name.
Then the date.
And, if applicable, the title of the assignment.
Study skill: Show your work!
Time to get to work! Instruct students to write the number of the first problem. To set it apart from the numbers within the problem, they can try one of these three methods:
Skip a space to separate the number from the problem, so they don’t accidentally include it in their computations:
Then they neatly copy down the problem.
I’m a stickler for one number per square. Many kids will resist you on this, and it might take a few weeks to get everyone consistently on board. But the payoff is well worth it. With their work lined up neatly, they are less likely to make careless mistakes.
For our purposes here, we’ll look at very simple computations. (We’ll move on to pesky word problems in a minute.) Really sell the ruler here. The more kids use rulers, the neater their work will be. PLUS, with practice they will be better at using them. (Holding a ruler still and drawing a line is challenging for smaller hands!)
Next, they compute the answer, then rewrite it. Then they circle it so that it is totally clear what the answer to this problem is. (I have them rewrite the answer for a few reasons. Mainly, though, it is excellent training for when they show their work for word problems.)
Continue giving examples, illustrating how space is needed between problems both horizontally and vertically. It can be useful to show what the work would look like without the spacing, so kids can see the stark difference between the two.
Study skill: Show your work with word problems!
This a granddaddy of a study skill. I’ve created this free download to help you and your students focus on what should be included in showing one’s work in word problems. In my classroom, students show their thinking with words, numbers, and pictures. Your format may vary, but this can serve as a basic guide.
You can print these in color on white paper/cardstock, or you can print them in greyscale on colorful paper. They can serve as Math Notebook inserts, as bookmarks, or as checklists that kids staple to their work.
Example of this study skill in action
First off, there are many many steps to this skill. If you teach all these steps at once, though, you will likely overwhelm your students. Instead, gradually introduce each of these skills so they can build up to this over the year.
Let’s say Harry Potter got this word problem for homework:
There are 5,000 students studying at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this year. There are four houses: Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, and Ravenclaw. There are 1,500 students in Slytherin and 2,000 in Hufflepuff. The number of students in Gryffindor is equal to the number of students in Ravenclaw. How many students are in Gryffindor and how many are in Ravenclaw?
Harry sets up his paper correctly. (What a good student.) He then lists “What I Know” and “What I Need to Know” and fills each in accordingly, using bullet points:
Then writes down how he solved this, including where he is getting stuck. Bullet points are a manageable way to list one’s thinking. The sentence starters on the free download will support your kids in these first steps. You’ll also notice in the example that showing their work through pictures is not included here. But this gives you an idea on how to start.
Model for them what experimenting looks like. Here, Harry’s not sure what the answer will be, so he does some experimenting. Often, students don’t realize that this “counts” as showing your work.
And finally, answer the question! Many students stop at the previous step, as they are understandably so relieved to have figured it out. But this last step is crucial!
Finally, here is what the whole thing looks like:
As you are slowly teaching these skills, you can incorporate highlighters and the other goodies. Maybe they can highlight all sentence starters one day. On another day they can highlight the answers. Perhaps you’ll let them use gel pens for all labeling. Or maybe you’ll let them use Geometry Templates to create pictures for their work. Let your imagination lead you, and make it focused but fun! I’ll often bring our scented gel pens into something that would otherwise feel boring to them, particularly if it’s a skill they’ve been practicing for a while. It reinvigorates their enthusiasm for the skill. (Plus gel pens smell really good.)
Whew. That was a hefty one today, no? But this study skill of showing one’s work is so key to kids succeeding in math. If you slowly start teaching these steps from Day One, they will become ingrained habits. Later, if your kids take standardized tests, showing their work will be no big deal. You won’t have that pre-test panic of “Oh-my-goodness-I-haven’t-taught-this-yet!”
It’s a lot, but you can do it. Take it one step at a time. And give lots of feedback as they try these new skills.
(Don’t forget your free download!)
And now it’s time to hear from you! In the comments below, share a strategy from here that you’ll try in the next week. Or. What is a study skill you’ve taught that helps your students show their math work? As always, if you found this post helpful or know someone who would, please share on social media.
Have a great week!
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*July 30, 1997 is the publication date of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K.Rowling! Did you get it??
Cadry's Kitchen says
I wish you’d been my math teacher! This makes math exploration really doable. I especially like how admitting you don’t know how to divide, but doing trial/error for the answer, still counts.
Trial and error! I wish you’d been with my Cadry, when I wrote this post. That phrase was on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t seem to drudge it out of my brain! 🙂
Kate Swanson says
I’m passing this along to all my children’s teachers (and a few more). Brilliant! Oh… and July 27, 1997 is the Battle of the Seven Potters. : )
Oh that’s great, Kate! Nope on the 7 Potters, but I love the name! (Is that when they drank the the Polyjuice Potion and all flew towards the Weasleys?) (The answer is sneakily hiding in the very last line of text.) 🙂