Sunday, December 19, 2010

Math Mama's Advice: Tips for Helping Older College Students

Received in email a few months ago:
Dear Miss Sue,

I discovered your Math Mama blog about a month ago, and have been having a most enjoyable time going through the archives.  I am a math tutor at a small Los Angeles community college (love it!) and am always looking for new insights and tips in conveying algebra 1 and 2 concepts.  I have already got some good ideas from your site - do you know of any others? 

The students I have who need the most help are older ladies who are back in college/first time who have had unpleasant math experiences in their youth. I'm a bit of a nurturer/hand-holder, so I like to break things down as simply as possible. 

Thanks so much!


[I asked her permission to reply here.]

Dear Paula,

I had quite a few older women in my 10am class this semester, and I had them in mind as I thought about your question.

I think it's important to address their fears directly. I recommend Overcoming Math Anxiety, by Sheila Tobias, and Mind Over Math, by Stanley Kogelman and Joseph Warren. (I buy used copies online for $3 or $4, and sell them to students. I used to lend them out, but I lose about 10 books a year that way, so I figured selling them was more realistic.) I also recommend the audio track I created. It's a guided meditation, and I recommend they listen to it every night for a few weeks.

I think helping them lead from their strengths might be more important, though. I try to help each class become a community. Some groups take off with it, and others don't. The older students know what they want, and are ready to go with it. This particular class has become an amazing community. They come in over an hour early (we are SO lucky the classroom is empty before their class!) and study together. They have another student lead them, and even though I like getting questions in class, they feel freer to ask questions in their group. They don't accept not getting it, and will work together until they do get it.

If you tutor one-on-one, you could still help this dynamic along by introducing these students to each other. Have you heard that 'the one doing the work is the one doing the learning'? That would mean that you learn more from tutoring than they do - unless you can get them helping each other.

I asked my students what other advice I might offer you, and they said that working together was key. They talked about keeping each other going when it got tough.

Perhaps if you recommend some of your favorite online resources for them to check out, they'll discover things that excite them. Many of my students really liked watching math videos. Check out,, and (my favorite) James Tanton's videos.

Let me know anytime your students are particularly stuck, and perhaps I (or the folks who read my blog) can help. Thanks for writing.


Anyone want to offer other advice to a tutor of older students?


  1. I also think it's important to acknowledge that math wasn't taught very well "back in the day". So many people had disempowering or even traumatic experiences. We know so much more about how to teach math conceptually so that more people can access it and be empowered.

    Thanks for your blog Sue. I'm a K-12 math specialist in Ohio.

  2. And thanks for commenting, BDC! (I followed the link on your 'name', and saw lots of intriguing comments. Raw milk is easy to get, here in the Bay Area. I'd like to hear more about your daughter's school. Email me if you want to chat. suevanhattum on hotmail.)

  3. Sue, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. You're absolutely right about the older ladies wanting to "get it". They work so hard in our math lab - it's very inspiring and humbling to know that many (almost all) are also single working moms. Because many other aspects of their lives are hard or painful, my desire is that the math part be somewhat of a pleasant, rewarding experience.
    I agree with Busy Day Cake that math wasn't taught well over the years - I was one of the victims, so I can empathize with my students' frustrations.

    Regarding groups - yes, they are awesome and everything good, however not logistically possible for some of the ladies I help. But you raise an excellent point about the one doing the tutoring is the one doing the learning. I think I'll try asking the student to try to explain to me first: what are we trying to do and second: how might we do it. I definitely need your advice here because so often the students will write down the problem and then go "now what?" There seems to be a large disconnect somewhere in the "solve for x" or "simplify" instructions.

    Regarding a specific area: factoring trinomials and the FOIL method can be a painful and steep learning curve. I know the tricks, but my experience (perhaps yours as well) has been that more tricks = greater confusion, so I try to keep the factoring process to one thing (these are the simple trinomials that don't need the quad formula to be solved). But here's what I need: A simple analogy to explain what we're doing. For example, to explain the distributive property, I use spreading peanut butter and jelly on EVERY piece of bread. Okay, it makes no sense when I write it here, but in the lab I have a cartoon or two showing:
    peanut butter( wheatbread + rye bread). Anyways, some little story telling deal about factoring trinomials would be great - I gladly welcome any advise!


  4. Factoring?! Ironic that I just wrote about that, but didn't include any ideas for teaching it well. I'm not really sure what works best, but I have some ideas. I'll write another post on this in a few days. (Last year, I think I wrote a big post on xmas day.)

  5. Check out the "focus on basics" numeracy newsletter here:

    Another article that had me sayign "Amen!" rather often was -- students don't know to reason when they're tackling math. THey may or may not know how... many of them could learn it... but they automatically go to "what is the procedure associated with these numbers?" and often it's wrong.


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