How to be an effective Math tutor!

August 28, 2006

As I mentioned in my previous article, "Are you going to struggle with Math this year?", many students find math challenging. This opens doors to the more mathematically astute individuals, who want to tutor math in their spare time or consider teaching as a career. These individuals, however, should take note that it takes more than just mathematical ability to be a good math tutor. Below, I present some useful guidelines for what you should and should not do as a tutor.

Many tutors take the easy way and simply help their students with specific homework and exam questions. Such an approach can sometimes provide a temporarily positive outcome for some students, however in the long run, it is not as effective in detecting and fixing deficiencies in the student’s core knowledge.

A much more effective approach to tutoring Mathematics is to supplement homework help and exam preparation with a comprehensive assessment of the foundation concepts. Filling in the gaps acquired in the student’s earlier education is the only way for them to be prepared for the next step - the next grade, College, or University. Keeping the foundation and core concepts constantly in mind is the primary ingredient for successful tutoring.

Additional effective techniques that proved to be extremely effective over the last thirty years of my teaching experience are:

  • Adhere to your student’s school instructors' standards in terms of notation and general topic coverage. If you find the school instruction level to be inadequate, you should not state this bluntly. Instead, you should demonstrate what you believe to be the right way as an alternate approach.
  • Whenever possible, tutor two students at a time to encourage a slightly competitive atmosphere that facilitates learning. Note, however, that this is only appropriate for students who are almost on the same level and under the same instructor's guidance.
  • Attempt to present material in a practical context that relates to the student's interests or hobbies. Avoid dwelling on abstract concepts.
  • Instead of focusing on specific problem instances, make sure that the student understands the relevant concepts first, by reiterating them and asking similar, but not identical questions. The initial problem should be revisited once again once an understanding becomes apparent.
  • When presenting multiple different Math subjects, it is imperative to link them together to encourage a smooth transition. Any links or similarities should be emphasized to encourage a top-level view.
  • Do not solve problems for the student. While this is the easiest thing to do, it is also the least effective as a teaching technique. When helping students with specific problems, start with explaining the problem and then work with the student to determine the proper sequence of steps required to solve the type of problem in question.
  • It is very important to reach out to the parents of younger students. Let them know from the start that they are very important to their child's education and that you want to work with them. Make them realize that they are central to this process. The parents must share your ideology about importance of good mathematical knowledge versus just a simple pass on a particular assignment or exam.

I hope that these guidelines help you become a more effective math tutor.

Good luck!


"Mathematics is a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other that has been bequeathed to us by human agency."
-- Descartes