Survivor Algebra: A Typical Day with Survivor Algebra

(Written in the summer of 2005 by Coolmath Karen)

The most common thing I'm asked in emails is, "How does a typical class period work with Survivor Algebra?"

First, let's talk a bit about some learning theory.

When I first started doing Survivor Algebra, it was 100% group work... and it did work for a lot of students...  But, I've now arrived at an approach (based on the information I got from the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition by the National Research Council) that makes things MUCH smoother for both you and your students.

I’ve added a question/lecture session to the beginning of each class meeting.  The research sited in this book shows that the optimal way for students to learn (and to retain what they’ve learned) is

1. Read about the topic

2. Struggle with problems on their own

3. THEN, participate in a well-structured lecture or overview on the topic.

Part 2 is the key – without the struggling BEFORE part 3, students will not fully benefit from the teacher interaction.  Studies also show that items 1 and 3 alone do not promote learning and the traditional lecture-first method does not work for the majority of students. This new “introduction” time has become an invaluable opportunity for learning and evaluation for my students. 

I use this time to do the following:

1. Answer questions (on anything including review material like fractions)

2. Give overviews and/or mini-lectures of what the students have learned on their own

3. Guide them in creating their own study aids

4. Teach them metacognition methods (Metacognition is the self-assessment process in which the student is able to assess what he really knows and understands and what he does not.  Often, knowing what we don’t know is the key to our learning!)  More simply put, I have them close their books and notes and give them problems to try cold.  If they can do them, then they've really learned it.  If they can't do them, then they see that they need to rework the topic.

I am happily finding that this addition has lessened the shock that some students feel with such a different approach to learning.  For many, it is their first experience with self-guided learning.  Now, a few years into this new addition to Survivor Algebra, I'm completely sold that this is the way to go to maximize student success.

So, let's walk through a typical Wednesday class:

Tuesday night:  The student reads through the material that you'll be discussing on Wednesday and tries to work through a handful (5-10) of related problems. 

Wednesday before class starts:  Write a positive motivational quote on the board (or overhead projector).  (See more about this in my sections on success.)

When class starts:  Take questions!  If someone is so completely lost that they don't know what to ask, give a little mini-lecture on the topic.  I like to take questions on the previous night's reading first, then questions from recent previous sections...  I won't answer any questions from future material (some students actually do read ahead.)  The reason I don't do this, is that it will look like an alien language to the other students and we want to avoid that clueless feeling at all times.  Questions usually fill 5-20 minutes depending on the topic.

When questions are over:  Now, I ask THEM questions.  Have them close their books and see if they can do some problems cold.  Give them a little time to try the problem, then (without talking) start putting some of the steps up on the board.  Sometimes they just need to see the first step to be able to get the rest.  After enough time has passed (you'll know), then talk the class through the problem.

After this:  Put them into groups (their tribes) and give them some problems to work together.  Start with some basic ones, then put a couple "thinkers" in there.  For example, if they just learned how to solve x^2-4=0, see if they can figure out how to solve x^3-4x=0.  During this tribe time, I'm always available to answer questions.  Students just raise a hand and call me over.  I also walk around and watch.  This is really a great time to get to know your students on a more personal level -- and for them to get to know you.

I then assign another handful of questions for that night's homework (5-10).  With homework, always keep in mind that they'll have to have time to read and start in on the next stuff.

So... have you noticed that I don't give a huge number of homework problems? I definitely do NOT assign the 100 problems that appear in the typical math text.  Not even the 50 odd problems!  That's just way too many and really not necessary at all.  Students with 50 problems to do are overwhelmed and so worried about being able to just finish end up working to and don't pay attention to what they are doing.  They don't stop to smell the roses!  Have students do 5-10 problems (pick important ones).  Explain to them that you want them to do them slowly and thoughtfully.  They are to take their time and pay attention to the details.  This will greatly relieve their anxiety and, yes, they WILL learn the material even better.   If you really still want to assign those obnoxiously difficult problems that appear at the end of those long textbook sets, I suggest that you do it during their tribe group time.  Just be aware that, if you get the kids too freaked about all those "special cases" and freakish things that can happen, they may not "get" the basics...  And getting the basics is far more important!

Btw, things may get a bit noisy during tribe time...  Even if they are just talking about math!  When I need to get their attention (for example, if a student has just asked a really good question and I want to give the answer to the entire class), I just go over and turn off the lights.  This is their signal to be quiet and listen.

Just a quick word here about daily quizzes and "pop" quizzes.  I am NOT a fan of these!  I want my students to come to class feeling relaxed and safe.  If there is always a quiz waiting for them, they will always be nervous and dreading seeing your face.