Tutoring hack:
Make irrelevant problems relevant

Motivate learners by connecting new information to something they already care about

TutorBloom Staff · Mar 21, 2021 · 2 min read

This morning my young son was working on a math problem about counting combinations. The details of the problem matter a bit for this post, so bear with me here. I promise I won't make you do any math:

A meal consists of an entree, a side and a drink. There are three entrees: hamburger, hot dog and sandwich. There are two sides: french fries and salad. There are two drinks: soda and juice. How many possible meals are there?

My son wasn't interested in this problem at all. He just buried his head in his arms.

Then I had an idea. "Hey son. This is kind of like Roblox..."

Slowly, he raised his head and looked over, as if to say, "I'm listening, old man. Keep talking."

I drew the following picture (but without the swords yet):


"You know how in Roblox you can have helmets and armor and stuff? Imagine you have three different helmets. And a couple of breastplates. How many possible combinations can you make?"

Eagerly, he tapped out the six combinations of helmet and breastplate with his finger. His admiration for my method was so great that he refrained from opining on the quality of my artwork.

"OK, now what if we add a sword and a scimitar to the problem?" (All those years of playing Dungeons & Dragons finally paid off.)

"Twelve", he beamed.

"You didn't even have to think of that. You just nailed it. Awesome."

He grinned.

"Now that hamburger problem. Same problem. Make sense?"


One of the big opportunities a tutor has is to make problems more interesting and relevant to learners. A boring problem about a salad suddenly becomes an engaging problem about Roblox. You can improve learning with this hack.

Obviously you have to know something about the learner's interests to pull this off, and that's where building a relationship comes in. Roblox may work less well for older learners. But see if you can come up with something else. You might even enlist the learner in helping you construct the interesting problem before solving it.

If you found this tutoring hack helpful, see our post Tutoring hack: Ask "What do you already know?" for another hack you can use.

Happy tutoring!