Five Tips for Math Success

Published October 1, 2006

With 50 million K-12 students back in school, math expert Larry Shiller is offering teachers five easy but important tips for promoting math success in homes and classrooms.

“Starting with the right preparation and approach at the beginning of the school year can make a world of difference in math performance,” said Shiller, who has a degree in mathematics from M.I.T. and is publisher of the acclaimed Montessori-based ShillerMath curriculum and author of Software Excellence (Prentice-Hall, 1990). Shiller is executive director of the Rising Stars Foundation, whose mission is to build positive roles models for kids in mathematics.

“The [United States] ranks in the bottom 20 percent among industrialized nations. These techniques are simple ways to help us improve that rating starting today,” Shiller said.

  • Fill the holes before starting new curriculum. Kids are often rusty after the summer. Spend a day testing last year’s material, then take whatever time is appropriate to fill any holes found. Once students have a solid foundation they will make much faster progress. Free diagnostic tests and answer keys are available at
  • Use all the senses. When a student doesn’t get it with pen and paper, introduce activities that involve the major muscle groups, music, or vocalization. This works wonders, regardless of age.
  • Drill appropriately and individually. Drilling when a student understands the lesson and wishes to move on is inappropriate–it is better to move on. Stopping drills when a student wishes to do more is also inappropriate–it is better to let the student drill until reaching closure. And drilling when a student doesn’t get it is inappropriate–it is better to put the lesson aside and reintroduce it a few days later.
  • Find mentors. There’s no better way to learn than to teach. Let the best students find ways to help struggling students. To build teamwork and cooperation, reward students based not only on individual performance but also on overall class performance.
  • Never say no. When a student gives the wrong answer, saying so doesn’t help. Instead, go back, one step at a time, until the student gets it right and move on only then.