Why Do Bright Pupils Have Difficulty with Maths?

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GCSE Maths By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Maths » GCSE Maths
Last updated: 26/10/2009
Tags: advice (general), gcse maths

How is it that many bright, hardworking and ambitious students struggle so with maths? After all, it is possible to get by in most school maths by being able to carry out a repertoire of fairly simple algorithms far less complex than those required to solve many problems encountered regularly in ordinary peoples lives. 

In my experience, students’ problems with maths almost invariably are rooted in misconceptions that are often several years old.  Not every child is going to take the same amount of time to develop the same level of understanding of a new concept, or even is ready for it at the same time in their life, yet the school curriculum forces children to progress at the same rate as their classmates (and flexible learning schemes designed so that children progress at their own pace, while admirable in conception, often result in a lack of contact between pupil and teacher).  Success at any stage is measured by test results; provided a student doesn’t do disastrously at any stage they will progress with the same class to more advanced material. But this can allow serious gaps in students’ understanding to go unnoticed. An acceptable mark at a test can be obtained by doing very well in one topic whilst another topic is completely misunderstood. Remember that even a mark of 80% means that the student for some reason was unable to obtain 20% of the marks! Often, the brighter a student is, the better they will be at hiding these gaps in their understanding, and even if identified, a classroom teacher may not have the time or resources to deal with them on an individual basis. And the biggest danger is that the interventions get made too late to deal with the root problem. A small misconception at age 11 is not noticed, and its knock-on effects may not cause significant problems until serious difficulties with an important topic at age 15 are identified. By this stage, with the pressures imposed by exam syllabuses, it can be tempting to focus on this more advanced problem, swamping the student with hundreds of different ways of explaining it and exercise after exercise that the student completes in growing frustration and complete incomprehension. Maybe the student will practise enough to be able to repeat the performance in the exam and thereby getting a good enough result to justify moving onto A-level – but this just delays the problem further.

A major benefit of one-to-one tutoring is that issues like this can be explored properly and dealt with at whatever level is required. It would be embarrassing in a classroom context for a 15-year-old pupil to be set exercises last encountered at age 11, but once sufficient trust has been established between tutor and pupil, this course of action, if deemed necessary, would be perfectly possible.  Of course it may not yield instant results – the misconceptions may be deeply ingrained, and it may be necessary to unpick the chain of misunderstandings that have followed. But regular work can make significant improvements in the course of a few weeks, and subsequently progress with much higher-level work is possible at greater speed and level of understanding.

This sort of deep conceptual approach is not necessary or appropriate in all cases – some particularly able students need stretching beyond what is offered to them at school, others simply need extra contact time to supplement their school work, some need drilling in routine skills, some need inspiration to develop a sense of enjoyment and fun, and some just need a big stick to make them get down to work! It’s very important as a tutor to be flexible in approach, and to treat each student as an individual. As long as the student has a desire to improve and is prepared to participate in the tutoring partnership, the benefits of one-to-one tutoring can be highly rewarding.


Tom Kennedy A-level Maths (Further) Tutor (South West London)

About The Author

Maths tutor based in SW London with 8 years classroom experience and a further 7 years as private tutor.




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