The 5 Best Math Habits to Prevent Mistakes
Aug 14, 2024One of the best things about backtoschool season is the fresh start it brings for students, parents and teachers alike. The school year ahead is full of possibilities, and we all have a chance to leave last year's mistakes behind. With that in mind, it is also the perfect time to establish strong math habits that ensure success throughout the entire year.
While mastering new skills can be challenging for students, the real hurdle often lies in small mistakes that can derail an entire problem. As a teacher, I sometimes see students who, even after multiple rounds of instruction, guidance and repeated practice on a skill, are unable to obtain a passing grade on it independently. From their work I can see that they understand how to solve the problems. But, due to several bad habits, they keep making just one or two mistakes on each one that leads to an incorrect answer.
Starting in 3rd grade level math with subtraction of 3digit numbers with regrouping and continuing through 4th, 5th and 6th grades with problems such as long division, multidigit multiplication, evaluating expressions using the order of operations, adding and subtracting mixed numbers, surface area and much more the problems students solve become more complex and are computation heavy. As a teacher, I see many students struggling in the same way: they get down the process but continue to arrive at incorrect answers because of simple mistakes made along the way.
If this sounds familiar to you as a parent or teacher, take a look at these simple, yet extremely important good math habits that you can reinforce to your child or student to help them be successful in conquering those long math problems that require multiple steps and computations.
#1: Read the Directions
 I’m sure teachers everywhere are nodding their heads as they read this first tip! I can’t count the number of times a student will raise their hand and say something like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, to which my reply is always, Did you read the directions? Other students skip the directions just assuming they know what to do and proceed to work their little hearts out obtaining incorrect answers because they did not do what the directions asked them to do. This mistake is more forgivable in class, but on tests (especially those state assessments), many times there's no going back to correct their mistakes.
#2: Take Care in How You Write a Problem Down

Use neat handwriting! Yes, I know this is something everyone hears from teachers on repeat, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t constantly see mistakes happen because students can’t even interpret their own writing! Fours that look like nines, six’s that look like zeros, and multiplication signs that look like plus signs are just some examples. As students progress through math and into algebra where letters become a part of lengthy problems, the margin for error will increase even more.

Make sure your numbers are placed in the right location, and place value columns are aligned correctly! So many students are able to solve math problems that have already been set up for them, but struggle to correctly copy a problem onto paper themselves. To make addition, subtraction and multiplication problems easier to work with and solve correctly, they should always stack numbers one on top of the other, putting the biggest number on top and make sure the digits are lined up correctly from right to left (with the exception of adding and subtracting decimals where the decimal points must be in alignment). Long division problems should always be set up with the first number in the problem placed inside the division house and the second number in the problem outside of the division house. If your child or student struggles with keeping numbers lined up correctly, have them turn their notebook paper sideways so that the blue lines run vertically and write the numbers in between the lines!
#3: Use an “Attack Strategy” with Word Problems

Word problems are a source of frustration for most students. They are intimidating because most do not have clear directions and students must analyze the information they have been given and decide for themselves what operation(s) to use to solve the problem. A word problem attack strategy provides students with a roadmap to follow that gives them steps to complete when solving a word problem that will help them to dissect it properly and formulate a plan for solving it. Our favorite strategy to use is the RUN Attack Strategy which is available for you to download for FREE in our Ultimate Guide to Solving Math Word Problems.
#4: Slow Down and Work Step by Step

Rushing through work usually results in checking off ALL the boxes of common bad math habits and prevents even the smartest students from turning in their best work. Whether they want to be the first one finished or they are just trying to get it over with, many students rush through their assigned problems not reading the directions, make errors in copying problems down, have messy handwriting and do not check their work which results in countless errors. If you see this habit in your child or student, remind them that it doesn’t matter how fast they are, but rather how accurate.

Usually if students are rushing through a problem, they also will skip steps thinking they can do it in their head to save time. While they may be able to get by doing this with some problems, this bad habit will eventually catch up to them and cause them to make careless mistakes. Mental math can be a good thing, once they have mastered a skill, but when students are still learning a new concept, it is detrimental to their success. I see this a lot in 5th and 6th graders evaluating expressions and solving equations in which they have to apply the order of operations. They see easy calculations and plow through the problems working the math in their head but fail to do so in the correct order.
#5: Check Your Work!
 Most math problems can be easily checked by performing an inverse operation. Addition problems can be checked with subtraction and vice versa. Division problems can be checked with multiplication and vice versa. Equations can be checked by plugging your answer back into the original equation. It is so easy to want to skip this step because it's just one more math problem to work out. However, I always ask students, Since you worked so hard to get the answer, don’t you want to make sure it is the correct answer?

For lengthy problems that require multiple calculations to work out and check, there is no shame in allowing your child or student to use a calculator to check their answers. In fact, since most state assessments have a math portion in which students are allowed to use a calculator, it is also important for students to become familiar with and confident using calculators! As long as they are showing their work in the original problem, give them a calculator and let them check away! If their answer is wrong, they will have to rework the problem or analyze their work to find their mistake which is another valuable skill.
Forming good math habits at this level will pay off as students continue on their math journey in future grade levels. It’s no secret that the older they get, the more complex the problems they will encounter will become. Help them kick those bad math habits, so that they can be successful now and in the future!
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