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Ideas for Tutoring Math

The following three ideas are the core of how I try to help students with math. I hope they are of some use to you as you work with your student on the weekly math problems. When creating those problems, I am always on the lookout for applications of math ideas (Idea #3) and would welcome your suggestions. Please also pass along other observations that may help us all do a better job.

Idea #1: Understanding is an important goal. Too many students have learned too large a share of their math by memorizing rules. That may get them through an exam, but in the absence of understanding, the rules may be misused and/or quickly slip away. With a foundation of understanding, using the rules becomes a matter of doing what makes sense. The resulting confidence in one's own mental powers is empowering. For more on this topic, have a look at Street Math, Making Sense, Confidence and Weekly Problem #1.

Idea #2: Motivation. Too few students are motivated to do well at math, even though they have the capacity. Math can be fun and exciting and motivate itself, but there's more. At College Bound we are in the business of keeping opportunity alive, so students need to be informed that math underlies most STEM fields. One place to look is "STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future," where "good" means higher pay and lower unemployment and the "M" in STEM means Math, and there are dozens of STEM fields (37 or 50 depending on whether you ask Immigration or Commerce).

And that's not all. Closer to home, there's a raft of ways math helps in daily life. I have made a long list of them, organized into categories, in Why Learn Math. In subcategory 2(a), the topic "home loans" is there to remind us that the sub-prime lending melt-down, though mainly about greed and loosened regulation, also involved math-challenged victims. People will tell you that they haven't found math useful. I wonder if they are just not noticing the opportunity.

Idea #3: Applicability feeds into Ideas #1 and #2. Teaching math with plausible applications can be a motivator (idea #2) opening a student's eyes to interesting ways to make a living. At the very least it derails the false complaint that math might not be useful. Applicability can also help a student visualize what the math is accomplishing, and that visualization can aid understanding (idea #1). On this topic, there is another 1-pager on this site at Words & the World.