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Mathnasium Builds a Strong Foundation Outside the Classroom

Article by Graham Johnson

Photography by Lucy Hawthorne

Originally published in Edina Lifestyle

Anyone who has struggled against a derivative or reached too quickly for a calculator can tell you the perils of learning and using that arcane subject we call Mathematics.  It can be intimidating and even infuriating when the numbers just don’t make sense.  And it is that frustration Mathnasium fights against.  I sat down with James Cawthorne the Center Director of the Saint Louis Park-Edina Mathnasium to discuss how Mathnasium teaches math differently and what they look for in tutors.  

Mathnasium is a tutoring support system for students K-12 that works to build math knowledge, skills and confidence among its students.  According to James, what that boils down to is, “Primarily helping students address their gaps in their math knowledge, helping them build their confidence with math through building personal success, and also helping them keep up with their homework.”  It is a model that specifically differs from both traditional schooling and other forms of tutoring available. 

One of those ways is to not focus on a single topic at a time.  In many schools, “You do everything one shot at a time, and then you move on to the next subject.  And while sometimes it builds back on it, you may go away to something else and not see that subject for a while.”  Says James.  This jumping from topic to topic can make retention difficult.  Mathnasium instead builds a repertoire of topics that a student will practice on any given day in order to build long-term retention of many foundational topics.  “I see those topics over the course of 2 weeks, not just in one 2-3 day section.  You see it multiple times which means you have to recall how to do that over time, and it tends to build better retention of the skills or the math process you are trying to learn going forward. You can’t go through it in one day and be done with it.”

Another key difference, is in the flexibility of its tutors in their lessons plans.  While Mathnasium has its own set of fundamentals they teach throughout a student’s time there, the first focus is on helping students learn what they are being taught in school.  “I want to teach them based on how they are doing it in school, how their teacher asks them how they do it, so they can be successful in the classroom.  Then, when they get to that topic in Mathnasium, I will teach them the more traditional process,”  Says James.  This flexibility and tailoring of tutoring styles caters to not only the student, but that student’s classes, and even teachers. It is key to their entire process. 

Mathnasium also differs from many other tutoring services.  Their instructors work with 2-4 students at a time in a form of distributive tutoring.  This size is optimal because in traditional one-on-on tutoring, “Once a student begins to work, the tutor only watches them, rather than actively helping another student.”  Says James.  In larger groups, instructors can pivot student to student to make the most of their time. 

These small groups are also fundamental to another way Mathnasium differs from many other forms of education.  Instructors at Mathnasium utilize a novel way of teaching math called Socratic questioning.  When a student has a question or is stuck on a problem, rather than telling them what they did wrong, instructors will ask them series of questions to understand their thought process.  These questions force the student to walk through their steps and reconsider what they’ve done, rather than simply being told what they need to do next.  Instructors are designed to be an intervention in the event of a problem, rather than walking students through correct answers.  Because as James puts it, “Math is a doing sport.  You don’t learn it by reading about it, you do it by solving problems.”

Schooling can be hard at any time, and for any number of reasons even when not contending with virtual learning, hybrid classes, and condensed school years.  With its specialized teaching styles, adaptive curriculums, and focus on individual students, Mathnasium can be a haven for students struggling with the subject.  Last, but not least, is Mathnasium’s unique focus on  developing students’ math confidence. “Developing math knowledge is part of it, but for many students it’s building the math confidence,” says James.  Once students become confident with math and more comfortable with numbers, not only will they be better equipped for their homework, but they will be more open to learning and using math in the future.  And that’s exactly why Mathnasium was created in the first place.

To learn more about Mathnasium and all of their locations, visit or call (763) 269-6969. 7104 Amundson Ave., Edina.

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