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How to use the summer to catch up or get ahead in math – without burning out or going crazy (part 1)

Monday, June 17th, 2013

When I was growing up, I did something pretty crazy one summer. I knew if I took Functions (also known as Pre-Calculus or Trigonometry, depending on your school curriculum), it would be with the math teacher I had for algebra 1, who was so confusing to me that I cried myself to sleep over my math homework many, many times the year I took his class.

I was so determined not to repeat that experience of working with that teacher that I decided to teach myself functions over the summer so I could skip his class entirely. So basically everywhere I went that summer I took my functions textbook with me, and I taught myself from it. It was one of the most powerful math learning experiences I ever had.

Since doing this when I was 15, I’ve helped a lot of other students use the summer to courageously and effectively catch up and recover from serious end-of-year math confusion and disappointment, as well as to prepare to skip ahead into a higher level of math.

The summer offers such a juicy opportunity to work outside the pressure, goals, structure, and rhythms of the regular school year. But it’s important to create your own structure, goals, and rhythms that work for you, so you can actually meet your goal without burning out! Here are six simple tips (three in this article, and three more in the next) to help you do the exact same thing!

1. Examine and clarify your goals. Get super specific. Is your goal to catch up? To get ahead? Or both? Do you want to cover material from specific chapters? (Like chapters whose tests you didn’t do so well on?) Do you want to master an entire school year’s worth of math? Do you want to get familiar with a really weird new curriculum in advance, so you don’t have to dive into it sight unseen in the fall? Are you preparing for a placement test? Are you hoping to bump up into a higher level class, like an honors class? Get as clear as you can on this.

2. Get materials that really work for you. Once you know your goals, get materials that really feel good to you, that you genuinely enjoy using.

If you’re aiming to get ahead, get a copy of the math book from the upcoming year. If your school won’t lend you one for the summer, you can buy just about any textbook off of Amazon that you could possibly desire. It can be very psychologically reassuring to know you’ve already worked on the exact material that you need to know in September.

If you’re aiming to review or catch up, it can help to use a combination of the textbook from the previous year with a new textbook that feels like a better fit to give you extra practice and a different perspective. But if you had a terrible experience with a textbook or looking at your old textbook just about triggers post traumatic stress disorder or makes you feel like a failure, just get a textbook that you like more and don’t worry about using the old one. There are hundreds of math textbooks out there, so there’s no need to suffer or settle for what you’ve been given to use in school.

If you’re preparing for a placement test, be sure to get a copy of the study guide or practice test from your school. Keep in mind that those materials probably won’t be enough to really review anything that feels shaky or master anything new – they’ll probably only give you one or two problems max for each problem type you’re responsible to know. So be sure to also get a textbook that gives you lots of extra practice for each type of problem that’s on the study guide, so you can do enough of each problem type that it starts to feel really automatic.

3. Get feedback. Even if you’re working completely independently, be sure to get feedback on your work as you go so you know whether or not you’re practicing correctly. Otherwise it can be super easy to do a bunch of work and not even realize that you’re practicing things the wrong way!!

To start, be sure to check the answers as you go. If you’re working from a textbook, aim to do the odd problems, which almost always have answers given in the back of your book. If you’re using materials from your school, check the study guide answer key you got from your school.

If you want to get answers or worked-out solutions to the even problems in your book, some math books offer a solutions manual that you can find and buy on Amazon, too. That way you can get even more feedback from the textbook that you’re working with.

If you find you want more feedback than you can get from the answer key in the back of the book just telling you if you got the answer right or wrong, and you’re craving something more interactive, personalized, and emotionally supportive, I’d be happy to set up a time for us to have a complimentary confidential one-on-one conversation to explore whether or not it would be a good fit for us to work together! Just send me an email at or call me at 617-888-0160 and we’ll get that all set up!

And stay tuned, because I’ll be sharing the next three tips in my next article!

Related posts:
Case study: a rising 8th grader masters her summer math packet
Got the summer math packet blues? Try some purplemath!
When a math problem just takes for-EV-ah (tips for parents)

2 Comments on “How to use the summer to catch up or get ahead in math – without burning out or going crazy (part 1)”

  • Amy on June 25th 12:53 pm

    Hello Rebecca,

    My name is Amy, I am a blog administrator for Tutor Universe, an online tutoring platform that connects students and tutors. Our blog is primarily used for attracting students and educators to our site and sharing informative articles that our tutors, students, and parents find interesting and helpful. You can view our blog at

    This blog post, “How To Use The Summer To Catch Up Or Get Ahead In Math…”, would be a good addition to the Math Help section of our blog. Many of our students find math to be the most challenging school subject. We were hoping to post your blog to our site, while including attribution and a backlink to the original post on your blog. Please let me know if you’re comfortable with this, we’d really like to include your content on our site!

    Amy at TU

  • [...] my last article, I talked about three simple ways to really learn a lot of math over the summer – starting with clarifying your goal, getting materials that you really enjoy working with, and [...]

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