I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post ever since I started tutoring maths years ago. Although my background is actually science (I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge) most of my tutorial students are looking for a maths tutor. And I keep seeing students who are good at other subjects but really not achieving in maths. Or they may be doing okay in maths classes and assignments but get awful results on tests.
What factors may be coming into play?
1. Lack of practice
Your child might say “I understood it all in the class, but I still couldn’t do the homework.” Or, “The questions in the exams are much harder than the ones in the textbook.” Does this sound familiar?
There is no substitute for practice.
A student may feel that they have understood an area of maths, but until they can apply their knowledge they do not really understand it. And this means being able to apply their knowledge in situations and calculations that are different to those shown in class.
You wouldn’t expect anyone to listen to a native Spanish speaker once, and straightaway be able to speak fluently with no practice. Similarly you could watch this simulation of the perfect swimmer and not be able to swim at all. Your body and brain both need regular practice to develop muscles and reinforce neuronal pathways.
2. Gaps in knowledge
There are certain key concepts that are used as the building blocks for more complicated maths. If your child has missed classes at a key point, or has never fully grasped these concepts, they are going to struggle if a teacher assumes that they can do the basic work already. It’s really worth them going over the basics before they try to understand more advanced concepts.
3. Poor teaching methods
This overlaps with the second reason. I don’t want to sound negative about teachers. I know there are some amazing, inspiring teachers around who have a wonderful way of explaining maths skills so that students understand them and can do them. However, some teachers are not actually very confident in maths themselves. Or they may be brilliant at doing maths themselves but no good at explaining what they are doing. Some teachers think that if they demonstrate a skill or a concept one time, the students can copy what the teacher was doing and will magically ‘get’ it, so they can move on to the next topic. But it doesn’t work like that! So your child may not have been given enough opportunity to practice the skill (see my first point) or they may not understand what the teacher was doing, or they may be able to copy what the teacher was doing but not apply that to a slightly different question.
Unfortunately there does not seem to be a consensus about what is best practice for teaching maths. In the primary years, it is definitely worth spending a lot of time on hands-on manipulatives and visual approaches before starting to make the maths more abstract and to require the student to write things down. In secondary years, good maths teaching will look more like teaching skills, using a variety of methods or approaches, and then allowing students to work together to solve problems using these skills.
Unfortunately many people believe that maths is just one of those things that you either understand or you don’t – you either have a ‘maths brain’ or you don’t. If students think they are going to do badly in maths, before even trying, they are less likely to try, and then they are more likely to find it difficult, which reinforces their belief, and it just becomes a vicious cycle. A growth mindset can break this cycle, when students realise that hard work is actually rewarded by better understanding and skills.
5. Difficult life experiences
Some students have difficulties with maths because of one or more events in their history. This may be directly connected with maths, e.g. doing badly in a particular class, or being told off by a particular teacher. It may not be connected with maths at all, e.g. a good friend moved away, or parents separated at a particular point.
It may be worth examining your child’s history related to maths ability and enjoyment, and seeing if the difficulties started at a particular time, when something else was going on in their life. Even if your child does not consciously associate these events with maths, they may be linked to the difficulties with maths.
6. Family myths around maths
This is linked to the previous two points. It’s worth thinking about what your own mindset is regarding maths, and what you are communicating to your child. Do you think you are good at maths or not? Do you say this out loud in front of them? Do you, instead, communicate that it is worth working at? Do you label or categorise your children as being good at maths or not good? It’s quite likely that they will internalise these labels.
I know from my own children that it is very hard for one child, who takes a long time to understand and remember mathematical concepts, to see their sibling understanding these same concepts seemingly with no effort at all. Of course you can reassure them that they are all different. You can also make sure that you verbally note the amount of time and effort that goes in for a child who finds maths hard. Then they will feel you are on their side, noticing how much of a struggle it is, and supporting them emotionally.
These are not the only reasons, of course, but maybe one or more of these reasons has given you something to think about.