University Learning Center

How to Tutor Math

Each subject area is different, and the basic skills needed to be successful in each area are often applied differently. The ability to do math is not the same as being able to read, yet both are essential life skills. The following are ways to help students apply math skills appropriately:

  • Sit down next to the student.

When helping a group of students, tutors should take care not to hurry from student to student. Do not quickly find the student's mistake and move on. Take time to know if you need to explain concepts that precede the problem. Then discuss all parts of the problem and watch as the student tries another similar problem. Invite other students working on the same lesson to work together.

  • Practice patience and encouragement, not speed.

Most students learn better in a relaxed setting where speed is not emphasized. They need time to digest information and formulate questions and opinions. How quickly math is worked is not as important as taking time to understand. Let students know that persistence and patience are keys to learning. When possible, check in with the student again to clarify understanding and answer new questions.

  • Encourage a cooperative and comfortable atmosphere.

Mathematics has a reputation for being very competitive. Students who work more slowly feel left behind and sometimes students will race through their work without fully understanding what they are doing. From time to time, have students work on problems or projects in small groups. Not only will students feel more involved with math by helping each other, they can also help each other with their feelings about mathematics.

  • Speak clearly.

Make sure the student can understand what you are saying. Do not explain too rapidly, especially with students in the beginning or fundamental math courses. Many students have trouble enough understanding math, especially beginning algebra, without having to worry about clearly understanding the tutor.

  • Acknowledge the correct things a student has done.

Math anxious students need to be reminded that they can do the work. Often they see only their mistakes. When looking at their work or helping them identify errors, be sure to point out what they have done right and give them praise. Consistently remind them that they can be successful math students.

  • Give credit for how a problem is worked.

Students need feedback on how they have worked problems before they can really understand mathematics. Stress that when students do not get a correct answer, they shouldn't erase their work. Instead, encourage them to show you their work so you can explain what they've done right and what they've done wrong.

  • Make sure the student read the textbook lesson and tried the examples.

The examples should be understood fully before the problems are tackled. Have the student explain aloud the method used to achieve the answer in the example.

  • Answers should be used only to check if completed calculations are correct.

Using answers to set a target for calculations is not effective for strengthening math skills. It is just as important to master the correct method as it is to have the correct answer.

  • Ask the student to explain what they are doing, step by step.

This will reinforce what they are doing correctly and allow you to hear where they are getting in trouble.

  • Make sure all calculations are written.

These can be reviewed later to judge whether an error in calculation or method occurred.

  • Refer to past math homework, class notes, and previous tests.

Math is a subject that builds on concepts. It is difficult to learn new concepts when the previous lessons were not understood completely.

  • Relate math skills to real life situations.

This will reinforce the concepts presented.

  • Look out for shaky assumptions.

People often make faulty assumptions about how math and science are learned. (e.g. If you can't explain how you got the answer, you've failed.)

Adapted from a presentation by:
Nathalie Vega, Math Lab Supervisor, San Jacinto College

Five Tips for Tutoring Math

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