Why Math is Often Misunderstood (and How to Prevent Falling Behind at the Start of the New School Year)

As parents, we want to see our children thrive this school year, and that includes math class. But math is one of those subjects that students often either love or find incredibly challenging and frustrating.

Since math is often misunderstood and causes a lot of student anxiety, we asked our Math Tutor and Program Manager, Susan Poppiti, J.D., to weigh in. Susan explains why it’s so important to ensure that students, who don’t have a strong math foundation at the start of the school year, have a support system in place to prevent falling further behind.

Q & A with Math Tutor and Program Manager Susan Poppiti, J.D.

Math Tutor and Program Manager Susan Poppiti, J.D.
Susan Poppiti, J.D.

Can you explain what a “cumulative subject” is and why it’s so easy for a student to fall behind in math?

Math is cumulative in the sense that topics build on previous topics. If a student hasn’t mastered foundational concepts, then it becomes challenging for the student to understand more complex content. For example, if a student doesn’t understand how to identify a common denominator, how will the student eliminate the denominators in a rational equation?

A student may compensate for a knowledge gap by memorizing examples or patterns, which will only cause the student to fall behind. A deep understanding of concepts must occur in order for the student to apply mathematical ideas to future problems.

Many students don’t spend a lot of time practicing math skills over the summer. What should they start doing right away, at the beginning of the school year, to try not to fall behind?

algebra homework with pencil

At the start of each school year, I recommend that students create and stick to a math routine. Practice is essential for mastery of math concepts, just as it is with playing a musical instrument or a sport. In advanced math courses, instructors may “recommend” problem sets but not collect them for a grade.

While it’s tempting for students to skip syllabus items that aren’t directly associated with a grade, completion of practice problems ensures mastery, which ultimately leads to success on formal assessments.

Many parents might not realize their kids are struggling with math until the first quarter report card comes home. What are some signs that a student might need individualized math help? 

Typically, teachers use smaller assessments, like quizzes, to gauge students’ understanding leading up to more substantial assessments, like chapter tests. I suggest that parents try to determine whether their child is successful in synthesizing these smaller chunks of material before waiting for a chapter test. Ask your child, or the teacher, how smaller assessments/assignments are going to gauge whether your child needs extra help.

Why is it helpful to match your child with a math tutor right at the start of the school year (even if you don’t see any warning signs that they are struggling)?

boy does math homework with blue marker

Math requires repetition and practice. From the start of the school year, a math tutor can help with motivation and goal setting.

A tutor can reinforce concepts learned in class, provide support with homework problems, review in advance of tests and quizzes, and even look ahead at upcoming concepts when time permits.

How can a skilled math tutor help students build confidence?

An effective math tutor builds a rapport with students and creates a collaborative learning environment. I’ve found that much of teaching math is confidence-building and that this can only be achieved when students feel comfortable expressing their ideas regarding problem-solving. Creative thinking is as essential as logical thinking.

Your child can build confidence through one-on-one math help this school year

Our math experts here at Educational Connections can help your child understand (and even enjoy!) their math class this school year.

No matter what aspect of math is causing your child to struggle – and whether it is with elementary math or a college-level course – our top-credentialed tutors have the experience, compassion, and energy to make learning math a fun, rewarding, and success-producing process.

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