Continuity and retention in math classes

I’m sure we’re not alone in finding that there’s distressingly little retention from year to year in our math classes. One of the big differences between honors and non-honors (“college-prep”) classes is that most students in the former can be expected to retain a majority of what they learn from year to year. Not all students, and not all topics, but still it’s pretty good.

But in the regular classes, a majority of students can’t find the equation of a line through two points unless they have recently reviewed the process. We’re all familiar with the mentality of learning something until the next test and then forgetting it, and this definitely isn’t just in math class — how many people can remember the specific dates they memorized in history class last year, or the details of the characters in a novel they read in English?

It’s not just a year-to-year problem, either. There are howls of protest if a question on a test refers back to something studied two months ago. We can rationalize this lack of retention by claiming that our students are still learning the important big ideas, that they’re still learning how to learn, but that’s cold comfort if they don’t learn anything past the next test.

Or maybe things aren’t that bleak. After all, Weston students do very well on the SATs and extremely well on the MCAS, so they must be retaining something. Are we just being unrealistic when we wring our hands over the inability of a precalculus student to simplify a fraction correctly?

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning, Weston