This month we talk to maths tutor Joshua about the importance of the subject, how students can overcome their anxiety and why his mantra is ‘practice, practice, practice’.
How long have you been tutoring maths, and what attracted you to the subject?
I’ve been tutoring maths for Figtree for over two years, and before that I worked in my summer holidays for several months. I chose to tutor this subject because I think there’s a misconception that it’s too difficult and only those with a ‘natural talent’ can do well in it.
What I like most about maths is that it is a toolkit – you learn a set of tools and when faced with a question, you analyse it, decide which tools you need to use and systematically tackle the problem at hand.
Why do you think maths is important for children to learn?
Regardless of your life interests – whether music or art, science or literature – it’s important for everyone to have some understanding of maths. Many careers require maths qualifications, and even those that don’t benefit from the maths fundamentals of relating objects, patterns and processes to each other. An understanding of maths is essential in today’s world. It is so much more than simple arithmetic – it provides the basis for reasoning and problem solving, which are critical life skills to learn at a young age.
Maths anxiety is on the rise – what do you think causes it?
Many factors lead to maths anxiety – general insecurity, perceptions of difficulty, actual experiences with difficulty, poor grades, confusing and conflicting teaching methods, and even parental pressure. All of these can lead to low confidence, which exacerbates the problem. If a student hasn’t been taught the foundations properly, or if there are fundamental gaps in understanding for any reason, anxiety is inevitable under test conditions.
How can parents and tutors help children overcome maths anxiety?
First and foremost, it’s essential to ensure the student has a deep understanding of the topics, with complex ideas worked up to from a solid foundation. Another priority is to avoid conflicting teaching methods – although it’s useful for students to be exposed to different ways of solving a problem, there needs to be consistency to avoid causing confusion.
Finally, once the understanding is there, confidence needs to be built. The only way to achieve this is through practice, practice, practice. Through working problems repeatedly, over a long period of time, students become familiar with the many ways that questions can be posed, and confident in their ability to answer them. With deep familiarity with the material, students can confidently tackle questions they have never seen before. Ultimately it’s about enabling the student to solve unfamiliar problems, using familiar tools.
How do you approach your sessions?
I tailor my approach in line with the abilities of each student, and when I am working with them. So throughout the academic year, sessions revolve around helping students understand what is being taught in school, while reinforcing past concepts. Closer to exam season, however, we focus more heavily on fine-tuning for the tests.
I first introduce the topic we are working on, explaining the context and reasons we’re studying it. Perspective helps a student understand why they are doing something, and this can help them adopt a positive outlook to learning. After explaining the topic – usually with an accompanying example – my students will work through many questions to reinforce the learning.
At this time I often switch roles, asking my students to become the tutor and teach me how to work the question. This is extremely useful as it reveals the student’s understanding and also keeps them engaged. I try to spend about one quarter of the class reinforcing topics that have been covered in the past. This repeated practice is essential to stay on top of maths.
Do you have any advice for students that are currently struggling with the subject?
The only way around it is through it. This applies to maths as much as anything else. To improve, students need to continuously practice over time. Use the resources around you (textbooks, past papers, the internet) and work question after question until it is mastered. Commanding and conquering comes from seeing the same type of question posed in many different ways, and this comes from practice, practice, practice.