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Making Math Meaningful

    How to create impactful math tutoring sessions

 Written by Joanne Walmsley




Math is hard

Planning successful math tutoring sessions

After a tutoring session

Math is hard

“I hate math.”

“I don’t get math.”

“Why do I have to learn math anyway?”

“I am not good at math.”

“Why am I so dumb at math?”

As teachers, as tutors, you hear comments like these very often. They are largely a result of negative experiences in the math classroom. The likelihood is those negative experiences and consequent negative attitudes are a result of the student falling way behind.

And, therein lies something fundamental to achieving success in learning mathematics.

Math is a cumulative subject. This means the learner has to master some concepts before moving on to more complex concepts. If a student fails to learn some math basics they should not move on. However, students are pushed on too frequently. This of course, leads to frustration, confusion and in many cases math anxiety.

As a math tutor, the students you meet may well be some of those that have fallen behind and who will continue to do so without support. As a math tutor, your goal is to change your student’s negative perceptions and attitudes about math. You can do this by planning learning experiences in which they meet with success. And, you can help them begin to think that maybe they aren’t so bad at math at all by applying the following ideas in your lesson planning.

Math achievement test results across Canada are decreasing. Math performance is becoming an education issue on a national scale. But there are many ways that private tutors can pick lost students up, and redirect them towards success.

Planning successful math tutoring sessions

1. Start with where the student is at.

You need to know where to start with your student. You need to know the basic concepts they grasp in order to build on the knowledge they already possess.

A student may already have had an assessment done. If so, ensure you review the results and consider them in your lesson planning.

If an assessment has not been done, it is up to you to determine where the student is at with regard to basic math concepts.

Find out what it is about math that troubles them. Is it a specific topic? Is it the way it’s taught in school? Is it because they are frightened of getting the wrong answer? Is it because they just aren’t succeeding?

Alternately, there are reliable math assessment tests you can purchase. There are also some free math assessment tests online. I cannot vouch for their reliability but it could be a good place to start.

Once you know the math skills the student possesses, you can build on those to ensure student success.

2. Learn what makes the student tick.

Students learn in different ways. There is no one size fits all way of learning. In conversing with a student, you can find out about their interests and hobbies, and some of the things (other than a hatred of math) that they dislike. In doing this you may be able to get a general idea about their learning styles.

However, a more accurate method is to use one of a number of free and simple learning style assessment tools found online. To avoid any ‘test anxiety’ do not ask the student to complete the assessment on paper. Instead, establish a relaxed atmosphere and conduct the assessment orally where you pose the questions of the student.

A short learning style questionnaire can be found at www.educationplanner.org. Click here for easy access to the learning style questionnaire.

3. Establish a rapport.

It is essential when working as a tutor that you take time to build a rapport with your students. In doing so, you can build an atmosphere that is comfortable. Some of these tips can help:

The last point needs elaboration. In being genuinely empathetic your student will understand you “get” that they are having trouble with math and that you have their back. The student needs to understand, you are there not to judge but to offer support. The student also needs to understand you value your efforts.

And, as contentious as some may find it, try to build a relationship in which the student understands it is ok to make mistakes. In fact, letting the student know you are more interested in how they arrive at an answer can be motivating in itself and will definitely help reduce math anxiety.

4. Connect math to everyday life.

Math doesn’t just happen inside a classroom. Math is everywhere. It is important that students understand and appreciate this fact.

Trying to find ways that math occurs in everyday life and in everyday situations can help students realize that math is important and valuable. Exploring math in nature can be especially intriguing and motivating for students. As much as possible, bring real life math into your lessons.

It is motivating for students to explore the idea that math is all around us. 

The atmosphere becomes electric when students begin realizing how math works in real-life situations.

There are many everyday contexts you could explore when planning your math lessons. For example,

•           Building projects

•           Cooking

•           Shopping

•           Nature

•           Playground

•           Banking

•           Managing Time

•           Other classes – science, physical education, social studies, history, geography.

5.  Math games

If you don’t feel you have been creative before in your lesson planning this is where it can really start to happen with your tutoring sessions. This is where you can truly personalise your sessions to the individual needs and interests of your student. Play around with different learning techniques that can be carried out through fun activities, and take note of what your student enjoys.

Introducing play into your math lessons can help your students see how fun math can be. Age appropriate role-playing games scenarios and math games can be motivating and serve to solidify concepts.

For example, role play scenarios such as buying groceries. Take turns being the customer and cashier.  Practice totaling the cost, making change, applying coupons and looking for the lowest cost of particular items in flyers.

For older students you might role play banker and customer investigating investment rates, mortgage or exchange rates.

When it comes to games you can start with classic games that already include a math component such as UNO and Yahtzee. You can also create your own math games. But, if your creative juices are not flowing as well as you’d like and coming up with ideas for math games is proving a challenge, search the Internet. Just a simple internet search of ‘math games’ or ‘make math fun’ will bring you pages of results, including articles, advice and guidance, and all sorts of games and resources to try. One especially great online site for math games is, Mathies.

If you’re looking to work on particular aspects of your student’s curriculum there are many commercial programs available and promoted online. Also, most provincial education departments provide activities and resources related to their province specific curriculum.

Plus, there is a great annotated list of free online math tools, games and activities on the Canadian Mathematical Society website. You can hone in on particular grade levels and topics for grade school through university.

For more ideas on which games and activities to try to be a fun math tutor, check out our blog post * on math games!

*the link to this blog post will need to be inserted once it has been developed and posted on the Canadian site

6. Be flexible

Always have a plan b in your back pocket. Sometimes, despite our best efforts in lesson planning, it falls flat. There are numerous reasons why, but addressing those is not the intent of this blog.

You need to be re-assured though that it is not necessarily your fault as the lesson planner and tutor. But, what do you do?

In the moment, try to realize that your student is probably feeling as uncomfortable as you are. It’s ok to say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t think this (game, activity, idea) is working for you or me. Let’s try something different.”

And then, because you are a great math tutor, you pull out a strategy that is in your plan b book.

After a tutoring session,take time for reflection

Just as we ask our students to reflect on their learning, so do we need to reflect on our learning as math tutors.

Asking yourself 5 simple questions can help in your reflection.

My last take home for you, is to believe in yourself and abilities. If you are anything like me though, there are times you may doubt yourself. But if you always strive to improve and try to meet your student’s needs you are a great tutor.