What Everyone Should Know About Math Contests

Math contests encourage a growth mindset.

Students who are accustomed to earning 95% or 100% on their worksheets and test papers understandably view that as a badge of honor, but the desire to maintain high grades can lead to wanting to “look smart” rather than “be smart.” This “tyranny of 100%” can encourage students to avoid challenge for fear of a lower grade. Because math contests are designed to identify only one winning student, even accomplished math students may earn far less than 90%. Regular participation in math contests that don’t impact GPA and where lower grades are common enables students to relax and learn for the sake of learning and not in order to “look smart.”

With academic support, math contests can replace a math curriculum.

I’ve had students who refuse to follow a traditional math curriculum, but were happy to learn their algebra, geometry, and discrete math in 3 years of preparing for MathCounts. With a strong coach who can explain and derive the concepts behind each problem, students can learn with greater retention. They don’t learn the Pythagorean Theorem once and then forget it. They are forced to deploy it in novel situations week after week at each MathCounts practice.

Math contests don’t always reward speed or math tricks.

Most modern math contests do not ask students to solve the identical multiplication problems in 10 minutes. Instead they reward thoughtful persistence and grit toward arriving at a solution. Each problem is different from the one previous and the one following. A geometry problem using similar triangles will be followed by a probability problem involving dice will be followed by a problem solved by modular arithmetic.

Math contests encourage academic bravery and risk-taking.

Often it isn’t obvious whether a particular strategy will result in a solved problem. It’s like navigating your way to the drugstore without a map by peering down a street and considering whether it might be there. A particular street may or may not have the drugstore, but you won’t know unless you take a risk and travel down the street. Likewise, in math, the most interesting problems don’t have a map showing you the way and often the student needs to take a risk and try something to know if it works.

Make math contests work for you

Many parents and students believe math contests aren’t for them because of the above reasons, but don’t let these misconceptions steer you away from this useful tool.


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