Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Think About It: Tricks for Learning

Only a day later than promised...

Okay, let's hear 'em! You still remember a trick (saying, phrase, chant) or two that helped you memorize something from your own school days! My favorite one for math would have to be for the quadratic formula. My high school Algebra 2 teacher taught us to memorize it by singing it to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel." I will do my best to describe to you how it goes since you can't hear me singing it! I put the lyrics of the equation song right underneath the original lyrics so you can put the tune to it.

Here is the actual formula:
And here is the song:

All around the mulberry bush,
x is equal to negative b

The monkey chased the weasel
plus or minus the square root

The monkey thought 'twas all in fun,
of b squared minus 4ac

Pop! goes the weasel.
ALL over 2a!

Were you able to figure it out??

Teachers (myself included) are notorious for coming up with (or googling) little tricks such as the one just described to help our students along the way: songs to help memorize formulas, clue words to use during problem solving, and phrases or chants to help remember procedures (to name a few). My kids love to learn a new song or rhyme, especially when there are body motions involved!

Ever been frustrated when teaching because you know you taught them how to memorize something and it was the coolest little trick and it's so easy and they just. didn't. get. it. ??

Let me give you an example:

My kids are responsible for understanding the difference between area and perimeter and applying that knowledge to problem situations. I find that, most often, they were taught "to find perimeter, add all the sides" and "area equals length times width." Some of them even knew a cute little song to go along with it. The kids can spit back the formulas all day but when it comes to application they struggle. They want to add length and width when finding area and multiply when finding perimeter. I used to ask, "WHY don't you get it?? You can tell me how to do it but you aren't doing it!" OR "The poster is right there--why aren't you using it??"

This all boils down to two major questions: Do your students know what they're memorizing? Do they understand the process of that which they are describing in the songs and rhymes?

I think those questions are very important. If the answer is NO, then there is a problem. Songs and such must connect to actual concepts and learning if they are to benefit students. Just learning a song is not the answer. Students still need to have an understanding or perimeter and area instead of just learning a song that describes the difference between the two. If there is no connection to actual learning then learning such songs is fruitless.

On the memorization side of it, the kids are more likely to get involved and retain it if the rule, trick, or song process involves them. They will naturally take ownership if they (not just the teacher) came up with it. (Of course you know that kids (and people in general) are naturally more interested in things that pertain to them or things that involve them.)

Along with that, people learn best from self-discovery and hands-on experiences rather than direct instruction. That is why so many of us use hands-on inquiries and anchor charts in our classrooms. Think about it--how many kids learn that the stove top is hot not because mom and dad keep telling them so but because they touched it??! I think self-discovery is especially important when coming up with clue words for problem solving. We want to be able to help our students work through problems by giving them words to look for (especially with all of this stupid standardized testing going on). Allow students to find the words on their own (scaffold, if you will). Telling them "each means divide" and "difference means subtract" makes them think that it is true every time, no matter what context, which is VERY hard to break (all of my students came in thinking that each means to divide every stinkin' time, no matter what!). They will better understand if they are able to see the operation in several different instances. Here is an example of an anchor chart that my kids came up with for multiplication and division:
My kids want to use the anchor charts because they helped make it.

My point is this--involve your students in coming up with these "tricks" as much as you can! I am not against these activities as I use them in MY OWN classroom. I just want to emphasize 1) that we shouldn't rely solely on the songs and rhymes to teach for us, 2) it has to be meaningful if we want it to stick and 3) self-discovery is important.

Here are just three of MANY things you can do:

  • Give your students the challenge of coming up with their own songs to assist in learning. (I've read about lots of you in bloggy land already doing this!) 
  • Create anchor charts with your students. Students are more likely to retain the information if they are a part of documenting it. (I got rid of all of my store-bought posters and have replaced them with anchor charts that we have made together.)
  • Let your students learn by self-discovery. Instead of telling students, "equivalent fractions form a pattern when lined up side-by-side," guide them in seeing it. Have them line it up and ask, "What do you notice??"
Well...that's all I have. A day late and posted way late in the evening... :)

THANKS FOR TUNING IN! I would love to hear your thoughts!! :)

*I received a few emails from you about being willing to post a list of your math music that you use. I'm thinking either linky party or separate posting (depending on how many people are to contribute). Anyone else out there willing to share what music you use? Comment or shoot me an email!


  1. I agree with the piece on discovery learning (well, I agree with it all, but that part stood out to me ;) ) I do a discovery lesson once every 2 weeks and "Two Problems" on the other two weeks. When the kids are finding the answers on their own, discovering the concepts, I find that they internalize it. It doesn't become a rote rule they memorized or learned a song about (I also use those in my class ;) ) They actually know what they are doing, and can transfer that learning to other areas.

    And what's better...they are THINKING! (I actually just blogged about this yesterday..good timing!) That is the best byproduct of discovery lessons. The kids have to use their brains and dig a little deeper.

    Teaching in Room 6

  2. My daughter was taught her multiplication tables via song. The only problem was that it became a crutch because no other method was taught. Thus she memorized the song, but had to sing it EVERY time she multiplied.

    For example, the tune "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" was used for multiples of 8. So in order to figure out 6x8 she would have to sing "8,16,24,32,40,48" counting on her fingers the whole time until she had sung 6 numbers. I'm sure you can see the problems that arose from this method! My younger son could actually add in his head faster than she could sing the darned songs!

    I actually use a lot of Harry Kindergarten youtube videos for teaching math concepts. His songs are fun and most incorporate movement too! But, I think its more of a matter of developmental readiness (at least in kindergarten/1st grade) whether they can apply their knowledge or not. Take the months of the year macarena for instance. Some kiddos can sing the song and do the movements EVERY day but if you ask them what month comes after January they give you a blank look that tells you that they don't yet have the ability to take the information and apply it.

    So, I'm divided on whether its a matter of developmental readiness/maturity or whether some of our cute songs become crutches that hinder true memorization/internalization.

    This is a good point to ponder - just because we CAN put it to a tune, SHOULD we? Is it the best way to teach the concept?

    Thanks Janaye!

    Jennifer @ Herding Kats In Kindergarten

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    Crisscross Applesauce in First Grade

  5. What an awesome post! I feel like this almost everyday! My students come to me in middle school with these little songs and tricks that don't always work with middle school math (i.e. when you subtract, put the biggest number first or equals sign means the answer comes next, as you mentioned previously). My kids love to come up with their own songs and/or rhymes. I also make sure to always ask students HOW they remember to do problems. They love sharing with the class and it helps the other students think of new strategies. We just did a foldable where the students brainstormed key words for problem solving that I will be posting about soon!

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    Twitter: Melissa_Evans11

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  8. As a former 4th grade teacher I just love your blog! I just recently discovered it. I gave you an award over at my blog because I think you are a versatile blogger! : )

  9. Hi! I’m a science teacher Missoui (who adores your blog) and my fiancee and I are in the radio station Y98′s wedding contest to win a FREE wedding, reception, and honeymoon. It’s all about voting now and spreading the word via social media, text messaging, etc. You can vote for an unlimited number of times online on the website for Couple #3 or send the text “Couple3″ to 59898 up to ten times a day! Voting lasts until Sunday, January 15th. If you could help a fellow teacher spread the word I would appreciate it!
    Thank you! Melissa
    Twitter: Melissa_Evans11

  10. I like music to help my students remember things. I have used Paula Abdul's Opposites Attract to help my students remember the rule of combining integers. In the chorus, we sing instead: Opposites SUBTRACT! It's catchy and I see their shoulders bouncing around as they sing the song in their head. Thanks for sharing!
    Adrianne at

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  12. Well said! I use the key words strategy from Day one, but they soon realize that it does not always give you the correct answer. We talk about whether they are looking for a bigger number or smaller number, then what answer might make sense. Today's was making a T chart and they discovered the patterns on their own. Yea!!
    Please keep writing!

  13. I completely agree with your post and find the same frustration in my own classroom. I often contemplate why the students are unable to apply a concept that they have been able to recite the steps of application to me. I also agree that discovery and involvement is the best type of learning; but I must admit that in an elementary setting where teachers are responsible for teaching ALL subject areas, it is sometimes difficult to know how to plan a discovery lesson centralized around a concept where the teacher has limited knowledge of. This is where the world of blogging truly helps. Our best resource as teachers simply is each other. Thank you for always being willing to share your ideas.

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