Learning math is a bit like going through therapy – and not just because of the emotional angst. Having a good tutor or guide is essential but in the end you’ll have to do most of the work yourself.

Traditional math texts in elementary and secondary education schools are presented in the most difficult way possible. Instead of focusing on concepts, on introducing mathematics as a system of analysis – and thus giving beginning students a context for further learning – they present mathematics as a series of (at best) barely related formulae.

Thus, I advise the following.

First, in the absence of an excellent teacher who is willing to go outside of the curriculum to help students navigate difficult lessons, find a well-versed tutor. This tutor should not only have a deep understanding of the subject matter but also be quick on his/her feet and have a gift for analogy. Again and again research on learning behavior has demonstrated that the key to retaining information is to relate to previously developed schema. The right teacher will discover what concepts the student is comfortable with to explain those concepts in such a way as to help the stuent further understand concepts that he/she finds difficult.

Second, practice, practice, practice. A math tutor can help students to understand concepts but only through repeated practice will students master various concepts. Also, take note of how various techniques are presented in a student’s textbook. Math books are often divided into units in which students must master one or two theorems and the formulae that accompany them. The students must input various pieces of information in the formulae and manipulate the resulting equation correctlyin order to get the correct answer. However, what students often find most difficult is taking information from story problems, discerning the information necessary to solve the problem, and plugging said information into the correct formula. Thus, it is important for students to work through as many seemingly dissimilar practice problems as possible.

Also, students (younger students especially) should be repeatedly encouraged. Math can be extraordinarily difficult for some students and any educator worth his or her salt will understand that anything less providing constant encouragement to a frustrated student will make learning impossible. Many students – especially those that struggle – barely have an idea of why math is so important to begin with. (Most often this isn’t even their fault.) Validating their frustrated wil only lessen any motivation they might have to continue to struggle.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reward students for incremental successes. It doesn’t have to be a fancy dinner or even a piece of candy. A smile and an honest and enthusiastic compliment can be even more effective.