It happened at a dinner party. The hosts introduced us and added, “Suzanne is a math professor.” The person I was being introduced to, a successful small-business owner, blurted out: “I was never good at math. I took it because I had to. My algebra teacher was horrible.” What followed was a detailed recounting of their first bad math experience and how it forever shaped their relationship with mathematics.
As a math professor, particularly as a teacher of first-year math classes at a university, I routinely heard from students variations of the following: “I am bad at math,” “I hate math” and “I can’t do algebra.” What struck me about the dinner party confession wasn’t that this person thought they were bad at math, but that they could recall exactly when they stopped liking it and became a “bad at math” person, an identity that became part of the personal story they told to themselves and others.
Culturally, mathematical ability is often described as an innate skill. To be good at mathematics you must be genetically gifted with a “math brain.” Those not born mathematically gifted are then regulated to being “bad at math.” This mythos, which is also believed of many STEM disciplines, tacitly permits students to stop learning when they encounter difficulty with the subject because “they just don’t have the brain for it.”
In fact, while some people might be predisposed to learn math more easily than others, in the same way that someone who has a facility for languages can learn multiple different tongues, for the most part, we can all learn math. That is not to say everyone needs to learn calculus! However, having confidence in one’s mathematical skills is eminently useful in daily life, from understanding interest rates on loans to figuring out how many tiles to purchase for a kitchen upgrade.
So how do we support our students in changing their personal stories regarding mathematics? Here are four ways we can start changing the narrative around math:
Rethink the Language We Use to Describe Mathematical Ability
One of the first actions we can take is to look at the language we use when speaking to students about mathematical ability and our courses. Using language such as “this subject is hard” or “this class will be difficult” or “expect to spend all your time studying” reinforces stereotypes around mathematics as being a difficult, esoteric subject that only a special few will master. By changing our language to acknowledge struggle and the opportunity for success—“some aspects of this course might be more challenging than others, but we will work on strategies to help you learn those topics”—we change how students think about and approach the material.
Humanize the Subject by Being Open About Your Own Struggles
As math educators, we need to be honest about our own struggles. I routinely shared with my students that I was not prepared for math when I went to college and earned a D in my first math course. When they ask how I ended up being a math professor, I tell them it took perseverance and a lot of studying. By being open with our own challenges we can break down the stereotype that math comes easily to certain people and that those who can do math are always successful in their efforts.
Offer Opportunities for Small Successes and Safe Places to Fail
Students who come to class with math anxiety and are afraid of trying and failing—especially on high-stakes assessments—reinforce that fear. Once a student starts to feel anxious, his or her ability to learn shuts down. In designing a mathematics curriculum, small wins need to be included in course designs. Personally, I am a fan of pieced-out, scaffolded problems that develop problem-solving skills while providing students chances for successful completion of small portions of a problem. By developing skills in small steps, we can help students build the confidence they need to take larger leaps. Deliberate problem practices that are based on completion grading can help build confidence and provide students a chance to try and fail without the stress that they must be 100% “correct” to earn credit.
Include Metacognition and Self-Reflection as Part of the Curriculum
Exam reflections, study plans and self-grading all provide students with a chance to think about their actions in a guided manner. By asking students to assess their own abilities, we are giving them the opportunity to identify the behaviors that lead to or impair their success. Asking students to peer review and grade each other’s work as part of an assignment gives students a chance to analyze and think about the assignment in ways that differ from just solving a problem to get an answer. These activities help students build confidence and develop their analytical skills.
We all have stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are. It’s how we define our place in the world. These stories include our perception of our ability to learn and change. New Year’s resolutions wouldn’t be a thing if we didn’t perpetually have hope we could change. But what we should find surprising is that for a subject as fundamental as mathematics, these stories tend to be immutable and rooted in experiences we have as young children.
Research studies on neuroplasticity, growth mindset and math anxiety show us that we are capable of change provided we are afforded the right opportunities and support. Are all these changes easy? No, of course not. But as we work toward a greater vision of a more inclusive, supportive math world, we can take small steps. And even small interventions such as exam reflections, study plans and scaffolded homework can make big impacts on students. They can help students work toward changing their mindset about their own abilities and set them up for confidence and success in their educational journey.
Suzanne Galayda is an ed-tech thought leader with a Ph.D. in mathematics and more than 15 years of experience in higher ed curriculum and course design. She believes everyone can see the beauty in mathematics if provided the right opportunity and is on a mission to change the cultural narrative around mathematics to show everyone that we all have at least a small spark of mathematical ability within us.
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