It’s all in your attitude

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‘What I Wish Parents Knew’ is a series on issues parents should know, from a private tutor’s perspective.

When I met Amy two years ago, she was a Grade 11 student floundering in her maths courses, with her grades hovering around a C average. As I got to know her, I discovered that she was plagued with self-doubt – she thought she “wasn’t a maths person” and that she was “never going to figure it all out”. Her goal was simply to do enough to get a B even if she didn’t really understand what was going on.

This is a brute force method that is especially common in Singapore, with its focus on 10-year series books as a method for revising. Never mind if you don’t understand, is the message, just as long as you’re willing to learn everything by rote and repeat the working time and again until you stop making mistakes.

Amy, who had resigned herself to never understanding maths concepts, was sure that she could improve her maths scores by memorising and practising. But she was selling herself short.

In my experience, there is no such thing as a “maths person” or a “non-maths person”. Everyone can do maths, if they are willing to put in the time and effort. And I don’t mean just using flash cards and 10-year series books. What I mean is taking time to figure out where your weaknesses are, and working on the fundamental skills you lack.

Many students hit a road block – usually early in primary school when fractions are introduced – and then assume that they are bad at maths, when in reality it can often be due to many reasons. Perhaps the teacher didn’t explain the concept well, or perhaps the student had a shaky grasp of the previous topics, and had difficulty incorporating the new concepts. Or perhaps the student just needed a little more time to absorb the new ideas.

Over the next year or so, Amy and I figured out where the gaps in her knowledge were, and discovered she needed more work in geometry and trigonometry. We worked on fundamental skills that were slowing her down – fractions, negatives, algebra – and then reviewed her knowledge base again and again. I could tell that Amy was trying hard and putting in extra time between sessions. Gradually, her skills improved and her confidence increased. Her attitude changed from “I’ll never understand” to “how can I figure this out?”.

As her self-belief grew, her ability to focus on where she didn’t understand improved. She was interested now in figuring out where the weak links were – she could see that once she found a gap in knowledge, it was possible to fill the conceptual hole and improve. As a result, new concepts came quicker to her, and we spent less time figuring things out and more time working on improving her test results. She surpassed her expectations and scored As – to her surprise but not mine.

As a tutor, this is my favourite part of each tutoring session – doing the detective work that can lead to an “aha” moment. But what I can’t do is to fix a student’s poor attitude – that change has to come from within. As a parent, you can help by supporting your child and showing them that yes, attitude matters and that change is possible.


Troy Therrien is a maths and science tutor who believes that maths can be, and should be, for everyone. Find out more about him and his tutoring business at

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