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Deb Russell is a school principal and teacher with over 25 years of experience teaching mathematics at all levels.
Updated July 12, 2019
Young students often struggle to grasp the core concepts of mathematics which can make it difficult to be successful at higher levels of mathematics education. In some cases, the failure to master basic concepts in math early on can discourage students from pursuing more advanced math courses later on. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are a variety of methods young students and their parents can utilize to help the young mathematicians better understand math concepts. Understanding rather than memorizing math solutions, practicing them repetitively, and getting a personal tutor are just some of the ways that young learners can improve their math skills.
Here are some quick steps to help your struggling math student get better at solving mathematic equations and understanding core concepts. Regardless of age, the tips here will help students learn and understand math fundamentals from primary school right on through to university math.
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All too often, students will try to memorize a procedure or sequence of steps instead of looking to understand why certain steps are required in a procedure. For this reason, it’s important for teachers to explain to their students the why behind math concepts, and not just the how.
Take the algorithm for long division, which rarely makes sense unless a concrete method of explanation is fully understood first. Typically, we say, “how many times does 3 go into 7” when the question is 73 divided by 3. After all, that 7 represents 70 or 7 tens. The understanding of this question has little to do with how many times 3 goes into 7 but rather how many are in the group of three when you share the 73 into 3 groups. 3 going into 7 is merely a shortcut, but putting 73 into 3 groups means a student has a full understanding of a concrete model of this example of long division.
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Unlike some subjects, math won’t let students be a passive learner — math is the subject that will often put them out of their comfort zones, but this is all part of the learning process as students learn to draw connections between the many concepts in math.
Actively engaging students’ memory of other concepts while working on more complicated concepts will help them better understand how this connectivity benefits the math world in general, allowing for seamless integration of a number of variables to formulating functioning equations.
The more connections a student can make, the greater that student’s understanding will be. Math concepts flow through levels of difficulty, so it’s important that students realize the benefit of starting from wherever their understanding is and building on core concepts, moving forward to the more difficult levels only when full understanding is in place.
The internet has a wealth of interactive math sites that encourage even high school students to engage in their study of math — be sure use them if your student is struggling with high school courses like Algebra or Geometry.
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Math is a language all its own, meant to express the relationships between the interplay of numbers. And like learning a new language, learning mathematics requires new students to practice each concept individually.
Some concepts may require more practice and some require far less, but teachers will want to ensure that each student practices the concept until he or she individually attain fluency in that particular math skill.
Again, like learning a new language, understanding math is a slow-moving process for some people. Encouraging students to embrace those “A-ha!” moments will help inspire excitement and energy for learning the language of mathematics.
When a student can get seven varied questions in a row correct, that student is probably at the point of understanding the concept, even more so if that student can re-visit the questions a few months later and can still solve them.
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Working additional exercises challenges students to understand and utilize the core concepts of mathematics.
Think of math the way one thinks about a musical instrument. Most young musicians don’t just sit down and expertly play an instrument; they take lessons, practice, practice some more and although they move on from particular skills, they still take time to review and go beyond what is asked for by their instructor or teacher.
Similarly, young mathematicians should practice going above and beyond simply practicing with the class or with homework, but also through individual work with worksheets dedicated to core concepts.
Students who are struggling could also challenge themselves to try to solve the odd number questions of 1-20, whose solutions are in the back of their math textbooks in addition to their regular assignment of the even-number problems.
Doing the extra practice questions only helps students to grasp the concept more readily. And, as always, teachers should be sure to re-visit a few months later, allowing their students to do some practice questions to ensure that they still have a grasp of it.
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Some people like to work alone. But when it comes to solving problems, it often helps some students to have a work buddy. Sometimes a work buddy can help clarify a concept for another student by looking at it and explaining it differently.
Teachers and parents should organize a study group or work in pairs or triads if their students are struggling to grasp the concepts on their own. In adult life, professionals often work through problems with others, and math doesn’t have to be any different!
A work buddy also provides students with the opportunity to discuss how they each solved the math problem, or how one or the other did not understand the solution. And as you’ll see in this list of tips, conversing about math leads to permanent understanding.
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Another great way to help students grasp core mathematics concepts better is to get them to explain how the concept works and how to solve problems using that concept to other students.
This way, individual students can explain and question one another on these basic concepts, and if one student doesn’t quite understand, the other can present the lesson through a different, closer perspective.
Explaining and questioning the world is one of the fundamental ways humans learn and grow as individual thinkers and indeed mathematicians. Allowing students this freedom will commit these concepts to long-term memory, ingraining their significance in the young students’ minds long after they leave elementary school.
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Students should be encouraged to seek help when it’s appropriate instead of getting stuck and frustrated on a challenge problem or concept. Sometimes students only need a bit of extra clarification for an assignment, so it’s important for them to speak up when they don’t understand.
Whether the student has a good friend who’s skilled in math or his or her parent needs to hire a tutor, recognizing the point at which a young student needs help then getting it is critical for that child’s success as a math student.
Most people need help some of the time, but if students let that need go too long, they’ll discover that the math will only become more frustrating. Teachers and parents shouldn’t allow that frustration to deter their students from reaching their full potential by reaching out and having a friend or tutor walk them through the concept at a pace they can follow.
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