How to Teach Math to those who cannot do Math

By Alfred Tang

(Math and Physics tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Young man is solving mathematical problem on blackboard At The Edge, we teach students of all different levels. We have primary school kids all the way up to college students. Some of them are straight-A students. The majority of the rest are getting acceptable grades in school before they come to us. Then there are those who really struggle.  Since I teach only math and physics, in this article, I will address students who are struggling in math and physics. In most schools, star students get all the attention, are easy to teach and are the joy of teachers’ teaching experiences. The average students are more work and the source of teachers’ bread and butter. The struggling students are very difficult to teach and troubled by many issues. Most teachers do not have the time or resources to help them so that they rely on special education teachers and learning centers to take care of them. The mission of a learning center is to help all students at all levels. Since the struggling students often run out of options in terms of finding a place for help, I am writing to address this need.

Read more on Alfred’s previous blog “Effective Tutoring in Math and Physics”  

If you hang around math and physics majors long enough, you will hear them talk about math and physics ability as something “you either got it or don’t”. If it were really true that math and physics ability is born and not made, then why do we subject so many students to insufferable torture and humiliation in math and physics classes when the outcome is always going to be “don’t got it”?

A recent study confirms that some students are indeed born with an inability to do math. The syndrome is called Mathematics Learning Difficulties (MLD). Psychologists fall short of calling the “D” of this condition a “disorder” and label it “difficulties” instead. Nevertheless the way they describe the condition in this article, is very much akin to the idea of disorder.   Approximately 15-20% of the students have MLD. At The Edge, a handful of our math and physics students seem to have it because the ratio of the time and effort in learning math and physics to the improvement in performance is disproportionally large. MLD is also related to ADHD, epilepsy and phenylketonuria. Brain chemistry and structure are thought have to something to do with it. However the report does not insinuate that MLD is a cover-up of low IQ. My experience is that many MLD students are smart but simply have trouble doing math. The prognosis is not so fatalistic. There are a number of strategies clinically referred to as “interventions” that can be tried to help the students to do better in math. Obviously at The Edge, we cannot prescribe physical and chemical therapies. Otherwise, we can use one-on-one tutoring to accomplish the following two objectives: (1) Targeted mathematics interventions and (2) behavioral and psychological interventions. As per (1), we need to give student direct instructions on targeted areas of deficit. The hands free “think like a scientist” self-teaching approach will not work. On the contrary, a lot of intense teaching and guided practice are needed. As per (2), students with MLD usually have some behavioral and psychological issues as well. Subsequently it means less freedom and more supervision. Traditional wisdom of supervision looks more like punishment in the eyes of students so that they are either scared away or turned off. What research suggests is not punishment but more “modeling, coaching, rehearsal, reinforcement, self-talk, relaxation, reflective listening, sharing of emotions and cognitive reframing strategies”. My experience with MLD students is that many of them show the same pattern of behaviors—i.e. being late to class, attention deficit, failure to do the homework and occasionally exhibiting rude behaviors. One can say that these behaviors are classic symptoms of bad students with poor study habits. The irony is that MLD students can be good students in subjects that they do well. In order to help MLD students to do just as well in math, teachers need to teach them to respect class schedule, focus in class and do lots of practice questions. The process requires teachers to be patient, flexible to try new approaches and yet firm in keeping students on task to achieve their goals. In order for the students to respond well to the teachers, there has to be trust and good communication in that relationship.

The Road To College SuccessWhen helping MLD students, we first need to help them to come to terms with their condition. Many MLD students think that they are very smart and have big dreams of what they want to do in math and physics for the future. Sometimes it is difficult to tell them that they may not be able to become the engineers or astrophysicists that they want. Learning to deal with one’s own limitations is a mark of maturity but is a very difficult lesson to learn in life. Having said that, teachers cannot dwell on negativity forever. We must show the students a way out if we want them to make progress. Recently US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report outlining 8 strategies for college success. Since the mission of The Edge is to prepare students for university, these strategies can be used to help all our students across the board and in particular our MLD students:

  1. Positive future self—A positive image or personal narrative constructed by a student to represent what kind of person he or she will be in the future.
  2. Prosocial goals and values—The desire to promote the well-being or development of other people or of domains that transcend the self.
  3. Intrinsic goals and interest—Personal goals that a student experiences as rewarding in and of themselves, linked to strong interest.
  4. Academic self-efficacy—A student’s belief that he or she can succeed in academic tasks.
  5. Behavior related to conscientiousness—Behaviors related to self-control, hard work, persistence, and achievement orientation.
  6. Utility goals and values—Personal goals and values that a student perceives to be directly linked to the achievement of a future, desired end.
  7. Growth mindset—A student’s belief that his or her own intelligence is not a fixed entity, but a malleable quality that can grow and improve.
  8. The sense of belonging—A student’s sense that he or she belongs at a college, fits in well, and is socially integrated.

Parents may think that these 8 qualities are ideals for normal students and that MLD students do not have the time and emotional energy to work on them when they are too busy trying to survive their math classes. The matter of fact is that these 8 qualities transcend the levels of students regardless of the unique strengths and weaknesses. MLD students should develop these qualities for their college success just like the rest of the “normal” students. In fact, all of these qualities are antidotes for MLD—particularly quality 7. The reason is self-evident.

Himalaya. Mt. EverestThe final question MLD students and their parents may ask is: “Why should we expend so much time and resources to learn something that we do not do very well?” The answer is that some things are inherent worth doing because they are difficult to do, and because of what they do to us but not because we naturally do them well. One example is climbing the Himalaya. Mt. Everest is very difficult to do and costs a lot of time and money to get ready. According to mountaineer Alison Levine, Mount Everest teaches you many practical lessons about leadership in the business world. Math and physics are the same way. Even if a student does not plan to seek a career in math and physics in the future, the training itself is a good education. The matter of fact is that even most “normal” math and physics majors do not get jobs in their own fields. Companies like to hire math and physics graduates because these majors have a reputation of being smart, hard working and focused. MLD students will eventually join the work force alongside math and physics majors. They do not want their presence to remind them of their past failure in math and physics and to be made to feel like second class citizens. MLD students do not need to be math and physics majors. They just need to know that they have done them once before and can do them again if they need to. Besides, there are real benefits in studying math and physics in terms of cultivating analytical thinking for the business world. For these practical reasons, MLD students should try to overcome math and physics instead of running away from them. Having said all these, there is still something to be said about choosing the appropriate levels of math and physics for MLD students. Ironically I have helped MLD students to study IB higher level physics and calculus based AP physics C. The IB student succeeded but the AP student quitted too early. Anyhow the road to success in math and physics is long and tedious for MLD students. It can happen. But they have to count the cost and each person has to make a decision for himself. The road won’t be easy. But there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There usually is for overcoming every worthwhile challenge.


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The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off a very successful year in which 84.62% of their clients were accepted into one of their top 3 schools and an astounding 48.15% of their Ivy Plus* applicants were accepted. (The general acceptance rate was only 7.61% last year) Check out the rest of our 2017 Admissions Results!

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