math on chalk board

Whether it’s explaining ETFs or laddered annuities, advisors need to educate clients to help them make the best choices. But explaining complicated concepts isn’t easy.

We asked Jack Koenka, math support coordinator at Ryerson University and former high school mathematics department head, about the best ways to break down difficult material.

Problem: The volume of what has to be learned is overwhelming, which can switch people off before they get started.
Solution: Koenka says practical is best: give people only the necessary information. Start with a clear goal of exactly what they must learn to make an informed decision; then explain those concepts only.

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“Let’s say you’re a chef and dealing with someone who only needs to cook to survive—she’s not trying to impress anyone,” explains Koenka. “You’d limit the number and expense of the ingredients, as well as the types of recipes. But you’d still want the food to taste good.” That could mean explaining how to solve X in the typical problem set, while glossing over nuances a student doesn’t need to know.

Problem: Sometimes you don’t know the correct response to a question.
Solution: Faking your way through a solution helps no one. “I’ve seen teachers try to muddle their way through an answer that turns out to be incorrect. If you teach something badly, it’s pretty hard to reverse that,” says Koenka.

If you do mistakenly give the wrong information, own up to it quickly and turn it into an opportunity to instruct. “If you know it’s wrong, explain how you know. Teach students to assess the correctness.”

Problem: A student wants to appear competent, and hides confusion to avoid looking stupid. That makes it difficult to gauge understanding.
Solution: Asking if things are clear and whether there are questions is helpful, but insufficient—you need evidence that clients understood what you’ve explained.

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“One good way is to ask them to re-explain the problem and the solution back to you, almost as though they become the teacher.” That reinforces their learning, while telling you what areas you need to explain further.

Problem: When you deal with material professionally, it can be surprising and frustrating when someone doesn’t understand a concept that, to you, seems simple.
Solution: Remind yourself you’ve had a lifetime to learn the subject, and be patient. “You never talk down to your audience, because curiosity is fundamental to any group,” says Koenka. He’s seen teachers do this in the classroom and it’s the fastest way to kill interest in learning. “It creates stress in the person when you’re feeling pressure—your brain shuts down and you can’t progress, even at a normal level.”

Think back to the last time you tried learning something challenging. Remember how you felt. “If you say to me, ‘Move your arm this way, and your leg that way,’ I probably wouldn’t be able to imitate you. But, to other people, it would be really obvious.”

Koenka once had an average math student. While teaching him, Koenka was never a witness to any light bulb moments. But, at a 10-year reunion, that student said Koenka’s patient approach helped him overcome his fear of math. “What often happens as a teacher is you aren’t present for the breakthrough.”

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by Casey Dorrell, a Toronto-based financial writer

Originally published in Advisor's Edge

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