I'm a one-time academic mathematician, used to teaching smart undergraduates who made the choice to be in my classes. You can also find me overactively answering questions on Mathematics SE.

Recently, a neighbor with a 14 year-old son (let's call him Mark) asked me to help. Mark is about to start high school in an International Baccalaureate program. Over the summer Mark has been taking an obligatory refresher course offered by his new high school: 2 hours/day, 5 days/week. His marks are mediocre, his motivation is low and his parents are at a loss. Neither of Mark's parents are able to keep up with the mathematics at this level. Mark and I get along well in general and can talk about movies and general news. Right now he's resistant to the idea that he needs or wants help in the form of talking to me or working harder at mathematics.

Could anyone give me some advice on how to help?

Mark is interested in consumer electronics and some basic programming. Describing the intellectual paths $$Mathematics \to Physics \to ElecEng \to Consumer \ Electronics \\ \text{ and }\\ Mathematics \to Computer \ Science \to Programming$$ are possibilities. However I feel using this approach runs the risk of being too abstract for him. (That is, I can see these paths clearly as I have walked them for a couple of decades; but it's all unknown to him.)

His mother tried another approach last week: "Wouldn't you like to be the smartest kid in the room?" Answer: no.

I have watched the lectures from Jo Boaler's Stanford course on Mathematics Education. It has many great ideas on how to teach well at this level. So if Mark and I were to meet once or twice a week I think I know how to teach him fairly well and hopefully provide ongoing motivation through the elegance and creativity of mathematics.

But how do we get him started?

I'm open to suggestions!

Update (3 days later):

Thanks everyone for your advice and comments.

After speaking to Mark's parents we are using a 4-pronged approach:

  1. To help him get into the right mindset about learning mathematics and overcome some of the negative messages he has heard about himself, his mother has started watching with him the excellent, short course by Jo Boaler How to learn Math: For Students. I watched the lessons with the mother first to coach her through the material.
  2. I am tutoring him a couple of times a week and following Jo's advice about giving him the right kinds of messages about learning, as well as doing all the good things a teacher should do such as
  3. treating mathematics as much more than just a series of rules and procedures and helping him see connections between material in mathematics
  4. helping him see connections between mathematics and the broader world, such as this week's Pluto photos and his interest in computing

  5. In his home life, his parents are actively managing a number of issues such as excessive screen time.

  6. One of his parents has committed come the new school year to learn mathematics in parallel with Mark up to the end of Pre-Calculus, so they can talk to him about it and demonstrate that they believe the material is important. I plan to introduce them to Khan Academy to help with that parent learning. Khan also gives them another tool to help Mark in the future if he is stuck on a topic.

As a tactical matter, I have also given him a couple of mechanical pencils. He was writing with blunt pencils and his mathematics was messy, resulting in him often misreading his own work and making errors.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This sounds like a kid under a lot of pressure. I'm not that sure I'd advise anything other than having fun with math. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ Are you are helping him whether he wants it or not, because his parents requested it? OR are you helping him only if you can motivate him to want your help? $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @AmyB Thanks for asking. The latter, hence Karl's suggestion is not yet germane. First he needs to be willing to meet. I'm talking to his father in a couple of hours to figure out a strategy. Was hoping for some tips or tools before then. $\endgroup$
    – Simon S
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ What are his interests? I often find that weird facts are good too. Did you know an airline saved money by reducing the olives in their salads by 1? Get them facinated then steer the math later perhaps a Fermi estimate? $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 20:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So a low-motivated 14-year old is in math class during summer for 10 hours a week and now his parents are getting him to be taught by you for even longer? If he's already passed his parents understanding in mathematics and his grades are mediocre, why does he need help? Not everyone has to enjoy mathematics more than anything else, and no one is going to enjoy anything (especially at 14) if they are forced to spend such an inordinate amount of their life on it. $\endgroup$
    – PVAL
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 16:28

4 Answers 4


Since you're meeting in a couple of hours with the dad to figure out a strategy I thought I'd give some suggestions:

  • Kids that age like choices and feeling in control. Perhaps you could ask if he wants to try meeting with you twice and if he doesn't like it, he doesn't have to continue.
  • I think relating it to what he wants to do in the future is very important - it may be more theoretical to him but it should still spark some interest.
  • Perhaps his parents could give him some reward for making an effort
    or picking up his grades. Better yet - ask him what would make him agree to tutoring help.
  • If there's math that's fun/interesting for him perhaps you could alternate between the two.

Once you are meeting with him, you can ask for ideas on how to succeed with him, but first you need to meet with him.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ (+1) for kids that age like choices. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 21:03

Does he like to be helpful? Find something you can interest yourself in, and take it to the point where you can ask him for help on it. This requires a bit of artifice as well as careful planning, but you may find a question that sticks.

As an example, say you were thinking of improving on DVD technology, but the manuals and specs on the current devices aren't available till next week. How far can you get estimating the data rates, angular velocity, data density, fine control of stepper motors, and so on? If he likes you and thinks he is helping you, that will buy you a little bit of an in. Hopefully within three sessions (this is the tricky part) you will find something that really excites/irks/inspires him. Alternatively, have him suggest a couple projects he is interested in, and you can show him the fun parts of working on the projects, while telling him later about the routine chores needed to push the projects through.

You can't induce excitement, but you can inspire it.

Gerhard "In Control And In Charge" Paseman, 2015.07.15


I like some aspects of Gerhard's answer, but not the whole thing.

I think you should start by furthering your non-math relationship with Mark. For example, watch a movie together that you would both enjoy, or go see a political debate together. Or make a visit to Best Buy together to see what new products there are (with the understanding that nothing will be bought). Just something that would be fun for both of you.

When the moment is right (and you'll know when it is), ask him how he feels about his math refresher course. Find out what he likes most and least about math. Now you whip out some paper and a pencil, and you check what his level is in a topic he said he liked. (If he said he doesn't like anything, geometry is probably a safe choice.) Ask him some questions that give him an opportunity to think a little bit, but make sure he doesn't get stuck.

The idea here is for the two of you to do some math together, in a low key way, and for him to get intrinsic enjoyment out of it, without it being part of any particular academic program. It could be something that would be of no usefulness for what he's going to do in the fall. Just something he finds intriguing and satisfying.

Hopefully you'll be able to do some math together each time you get together, and a tutoring relationship will evolve naturally.

You might also want to take a look at what they're doing in the refresher course -- he might be better off not doing it. You won't know until you get an idea what they're doing.


We have a 15 year old son, Grade 10, that lacks motivation to study as well. Mommy and me were the top learners at school, and have a lot of degrees and are IT professionals, so this is a total unknown state to us. His one male friend, with the same lack of motivation, has a 12 year old brother, that studies and scores 90 percent!

There are 4 stakeholders that have to be in place to get a learner to be successful to an average degree: the parents, the school, the teacher and the child(and maybe his friends). We normally first blame the child for lack of performance. Move the child to another teacher or move the child to a different school, or look at the example that the parents set to the child, and then, the least controllable is how the school and the teacher treat your child!

Looking at the modern child: they are all occupied by PC games, Internet Youtube, social media, movies, music, etc.Then, the modern boy: he is not as mature as the girls, he is struggling to find and define himself and this results in a youngster with very little self confidence. This is where your problems start! As a qualified Maths teacher I believe that kids do not master the basics of Maths during Grade 4-7 ie times tables, adding fractions, mental arithmetic, basic problem solving resulting in a kid that "cannot do Maths" later because of a fear of showing that they cannot do the basics.

So for a 14 year old: let him enjoy life first - do not overburden him with study/extra lessons/threats. Boost his confidence by letting him do small tasks at home, fill his room with secondhand university books on Einstein, space travel, biology... Tell and go show him how wonderful it is to be a University student and that he needs to master his Maths to be able to qualify for University. Do times table drills on a Saturday. Buy old school books from his lower grades, sit down and jointly do those (sometimes trivial/boring) Maths jointly and repetitively to become masters of the notation, concepts,mechanics and problem solving thought processes.

Lastly confront the teacher (the most common problem I have found, as they are too busy to give attention to 30 x 5 children every day, or sometimes they are just rude/non-caring bullies): ask her what is she doing to foster enthusiasm and understanding of Maths in her class this week! Ask her to put your 14 year old in the front of the class, ask her to let him do some trivial task on the board to boost his confidence.

Then, once the Maths basics and self confidence improve, your boy will suddenly take off and feel that he can actually be competent in Maths! Good luck! WDK, Pretoria, South Africa.


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