Activity: Asking a Student About His or Her Past Experience with Math


The purpose of this activity is to learn how to have open discussions with students about their relationship with math.


  • Read the material below in the section called, “Background Information.” It will help you know what to say and what not to say during your discussion with the student.
  • Then identify a student, either one you work with or one that you know through your family or friends.
  • Talk with the student about his or her relationship with math according to the guidelines described below, in the section providing background information.
  • Think about the following issues:
    • How did the student’s relationship with math compare with your own relationship with math?
    • What did the student say that surprised you?
    • If you were to help this student with math in the future, how might you adapt your support based on what you know about the student’s relationship with math?
    • Did you find the discussion valuable? If so, what are some specific situations where you could have this type of discussion with students in the future?

Background Information

Why is it important to know about a student’s relationship with math? Perhaps more than any other subject, math stirs up deep emotions inside of people. These emotions can be positive ones like excitement, curiosity, and stability, or they may be negative ones such as anxiety, fear, and depression. More importantly, these emotions can affect a student’s learning and self-image. By being aware of a particular student’s relationship with math, you can make more informed decisions about how to best support his or her learning of math.

What should I ask about? There are many questions you could ask that will give you clues to a student’s relationship with math. Here are a few example questions:

  • What are some memories you have of math classes in the past?
  • Who was your favorite math teacher, and why?
  • What was your least favorite math class, and why?
  • What are your parents’ views about math?
  • How do you feel when you do math homework? When you study for a math test? When you take a math test?
  • How useful do you feel math is for you right now? For your future?
  • Is there anything that prevents you from performing at your full potential in math?

Things to be careful about.  Remember that the student should be doing most of the talking. On the one hand, sharing your positive experiences with math might make a student feel bad or convey the impression that you cannot understand the student’s perspective; on the other hand, sharing negative experiences can reinforce a student’s negative views toward math.

How can I use the information about the student’s relationship with math? Simply showing the student that you care about how he or she feels goes a long way toward building rapport with the student. However, there are some specific things that you can learn as well.

If the student mentions anything that is hindering him or her from learning math (for example, as a response to the final question listed above), you might want to talk with the student’s teacher about whether additional accommodations might be appropriate. For example, if a student feels that he or she knows the material, but constantly runs out of time on tests or panics during the testing session, it may be appropriate to grant extra time on tests. The school should have an official system for determining these accommodations, but you might be the one to suggest that the accommodation be considered.

On the positive side, if the student mentions things that have been very helpful for learning math (such as manipulatives, pictures, extra scrap paper, group work, and so on), you may want to let the teacher know. In many cases, the teacher may simply not be aware of what works well for a particular student. In other cases, the teacher will intentionally not be using a particular type of resource or method; if this is the case, be sure to respect the teacher’s decision.