When this student came to me this past June, she had been invited to take a placement test in the fall to see if she would place into an honors math class, and wanted help pacing herself on her summer math packet.
I just found out that she placed into honors, and she was so excited when she told me that she screamed on the phone! I am SO proud of her hard work and persistence!
Here’s how we made it happen:
Openness and Trust. Throughout our sessions together, this student was extremely transparent about what she did and didn’t understand. This was enormously helpful, especially because while we thought the summer math packet consisted of review only, it turned out that a ton of material was stuff that this student had never learned. Her willingness to tell me whether she was elated or frustrated–frequently with a self-deprecating sense of humor–helped us build camaraderie and also made our work together much more effective.
Which brings us to…Adjust as you go. When we realized that we had a lot of material to cover from scratch, instead of just reviewing, we adjusted the plan and decided to meet more frequently.
Break it down. The packet was extra-challenging because each page was like a tossed salad, blending problems from all different parts of the curriculum. While this is a great strategy to use when you’re reviewing material, it is not an effective way to learn something new.
So we backtracked, and my student learned one prerequisite skill at a time, practicing it thoroughly until it felt comfortable and automatic. Then, we combined these skills in more complex problems, gradually building up to problems as hard as the ones in the packet.
Practice outside of sessions. I also gave this student individualized worksheets that gave her a chance to practice and internalize the skills we were working on, with answer keys so she could check her work as she went (instead of waiting to talk to me and then finding out that she had practiced something the wrong way). This was especially important because it was the summer and she wasn’t getting a regular dose of math from a school math class.
Feedback on solo work. After building up her skills, my student worked independently on chunks of the packet at the time. This way she got comfortable with problem sets where different kinds of problems are juxtaposed on one page, just like they would presumably be on the placement test. Then, when we worked together, we would go over all of her work so she knew she was on the right track.
Which brings us to, “What did I do wrong?” At first, my student just seemed annoyed with herself when she made a mistake, but I really emphasized to her that it’s okay if you make a mistake as long as you take the time to ask yourself why and learn from it. Scrutinizing and learning from errors gradually went from being an irritating chore to just a routine and helpful part of the learning process.
Enthusiasm. More than any other student I’ve ever worked with, this one has a great appreciation for mathematics’ dramatic resonance and poetic potential. When she learned how to find the solution to a system, she said that that would be a great name for a band. Frequently she remarked that new concepts we were going over would make the premise for a great science fiction story.
Her gleeful excitement about the greater meaning of what she was learning seemed to help her take the tough stuff more in stride, because even the “annoying” math procedures were part of something that was exciting to her.
Parental backup. The best tutoring happens when everyone works together as a team, and this student’s mom was totally focused on the process of learning. She made sure that her daughter completed assignments in between sessions (especially important during the summer). She asked me thoughtful questions about the material and her daughter’s progress that showed me she herself was deeply engaged with her daughter’s math material.
Because she was so organized and also willing to re-learn math and ask questions about the parts she wasn’t sure about, she was also a great role model to her daughter. Her involvement and support was instrumental in her daughter’s success.
I was so thrilled to hear that this student had rocked her placement test and placed into honors! Hooray!
***Update: I just found out today (12/7/2011) that my student got an A for the trimester in her honors math course! I love it when students become completely self-sufficient and continue to succeed after they “graduate” from tutoring. Hooray!!
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