I have recently started tutoring a 14-year-old student who is diagnosed with ADHD and was struggling with passing a basic math course (think basic linear equations systems, first and second degree equations, evaluating polynomials, Pythagoras theorem, etc.).

For reasons not relevant here, the student is not under any medication, so it's hard for her to concentrate at times. I manage to keep our classes engaging, give her breaks when it's obvious she needs them, keep homework light, etc. I believe she suffers from low selfsteem when it comes to studies, so I am very encouraging, always frame criticism positively, highlight what she did right even if she got the answer wrong, etc.

She understands what the goal of the exercises are and the rules to operate within the exercises, but will often "forget" through an exercise (e.g. get the sign wrong when multiplying two integers; or completely butcher the process of solving a system of linear equations when the day before she knew the method well).

I have noticed that those errors are less frequent the more she practices one kind of exercise (for example, she would get signs wrong all the time when first working on linear equations, and barely gets them wrong now after a few weeks of practice). So I think practice and consistency is key for her, but it is obvious that she cannot "grind" them for hours (or even one hour) as a neurotypical person might be able to.

The situation

Her grades went up, but she still failed the course, so she needs to retake the exam in September.

I have identified the following issues:

  1. She often skips steps when doing something, often leading to numerical errors she wouldn't make otherwise.
  2. She won't double check an exercise is correct before considering it "finished", leading to errors which she would probably detect otherwise.
  3. She sometimes loses focus and considers an exercise "finished" before actually finishing it (for example, not calculating the value actually being asked but stopping one step before).
  4. She is lacking sufficient practice in many areas of the subject, so sometimes doubts what is to be done when it should be automatic at this stage.

I believe all of them can be improved with practice, by making it a habit to double check results (assisted by a calculator), writing down what is being asked and not considering the exercise done until one can draw a rectangle around the answer, etc. Furthermore, it is clear that practice cannot come from 4 days of intense study, as she simply lacks the capacity to sit down and work on something for extended periods of time.

My idea

I thought it might be good to have her do a couple of exercises a day under "exam conditions" (meaning she is expected to deliver her very best work, and particularly double check the answers). These exercises should not take more than 30 minutes in total, so she could fit them whenever she wants through her completely-free summer day. By the end of summer, she should have more than enough practice with each kind of exercise.

My problem with this is that I have seen what happens when she is "forced" to do homework when she doesn't feel like it: she delivers crap (knowing it is crap), to get her parents off her back. That's a waste of time for everyone involved (particularly me, who need to write feedback which I know she doesn't really need, as she knows that's not how you approach the exercise anyway).

I really want to change the focus from "Your task is to get this over with as soon as possible" to "Your task is to do this right". I can't think of a way of doing that, though. Measures like "If you the exercise wrong I will have your parents make you re-do it" sort of defy the purpose of not having the exercises become a drag, plus I know she can't do good work even if she wants to after a while. Plus I'd really like to not have it become a situation in which she is monitored by her parents and feels more pressure, as I really want her to not hate the whole experience.

My question

What would be a good way of getting someone like the student I've described actually get work done and get into good habits when solving exercises (not skipping steps, making it clear what the answer to the problem is, etc.)? It's not so much a matter of motivation or not understanding the course work, just inability to actually do the required grinding the way other people might be able to.

NOTE: I am aware this might be offtopic, but it's literally an issue I encountered as a mathematics educator, and I couldn't find a more suitable community. I also think the answer does depend on the subject being math, as it allows for a different method of studying the syllabus compared to other subjects.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ No one does their best work when it is done under duress. You are in a no-win situation. (Actually, gamifying might help... See if there are any really fun gamified apps for what she's learning.) $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Jun 21 at 15:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Excellent question. You might want to specify the country so that we might know what kind of official resources are available. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Jun 21 at 17:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Interleaving" might help as well -- mixing it up within each session so she does not get too bored with doing the same type of problem over and over (and so she has to re-process the differences in each type of question each day). Agree with the gamifying suggestion. $\endgroup$
    – Opal E
    Jun 21 at 17:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SueVanHattum OpalE I have tried some gamification in the explanation process (by using Minecraft, which she loves, to illustrate as many concepts as possible). I am trying to come up for ideas for this "grinding" stage, where I don't need to explain that much, just offer minor guidance, create a study plan and grade her homework. Maybe granting points for well-resolved exercises which she could redeem somehow (how? Days off is the obvious thing I can gift, but probably not a great way to frame the whole thing); plotting her grades privately and showing her when it shows improvement... $\endgroup$ Jun 21 at 18:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Usually, I am against worksheets, but your case seem to benefit from a very detailed and rigidly structured worksheet. Or, if you prefer using blank paper for exercises, having a checklist, a plan that she would follow. Solving all the exercises quicker would get her parents off her back. I would not gamify anything nor offer prizes - a well-done exercise should be felt like a prize all by itself. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Jun 21 at 19:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.