Need To Know
- Low math confidence contributes to low performance and math anxiety.
- Healthy math confidence is linked to higher achievement, positive risk taking ability, creative thinking, and perseverance.
- Educators can support students in growing math confidence through activities like co-goal setting, paired learning, and the practice of failing forward.
A Closer Look
Confidence is arguably one of the most challenging math "skills" to learn. But, it's also one of the most important.
Researcher Carol Dweck is sure of this. It's the seed for her book, Thinking Together: 9 Beliefs for Building a Mathematical Community. "In order for children to make sense of math, they must believe that they are capable of understanding and learning math," Dweck explains. "Mathematical confidence reflects a growth mindset and includes a willingness to persevere, a positive attitude toward mistakes, a willingness to take risks, and self-reliance."
Thinking Together suggests that kids' mathematical confidence can shape their approach to success and failure. The evidence is compelling. In short, learners with low math confidence may make a mistake and then define themselves or their cognitive abilities by that error. Then, sensing failure, they are less likely to volunteer answers and more likely to give up.
On the other hand, kids with healthy mathematical confidence tend to view challenging math problems differently. These learners are more likely to engage with failure as a chance to learn, reflect, and grow. This also means they're more likely to take calculated risks and to problem-solve creatively—both critical 21st-century skills. "Children with mathematical confidence are able to persevere through challenging problems, trying and trying again until they figure them out," says Dweck. "It is our job as teachers to help them gain this perseverance."
Here are five research aligned ways to support students in this process:
1. Mind the time.
Shorter, dedicated bursts of content instruction can keep motivation strong. They can also increase engagement, build stamina, and boost confidence over time. Fifteen minute intervals of targeted, engaged learning broken down into five minutes of demonstration and ten minutes of practice goes a long way.
2. Make a plan.
Confidence grows when kids have an active role in interpreting their math data, naming their own goals, and tracking their progress toward the goals. For youth, exercising voice, choice, and agency over their school experiences builds self-reliance and self-esteem—not to mention increased engagement and performance.
Of course, co-creating goals means that up-to-date data accessibility is a must. This is where computerized data management systems shine. For example, SpringMath, a complete MTSS system for grades K-8, reads and interprets student data, then uses that information to customize classwide and individual intervention plans. Data provided through SpringMath enables teachers to know when students have mastered specific grade-level math skills and recommends detailed next steps. At-the-fingertips data makes the work of co-creating and tracking goals easier and more motivating!
3. Fail forward.
"The best way to learn math is to learn how to fail productively." That's the advice of Manu Kapur, head of the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. He explains that failure is an integral part of the learning process—one that activates deeper learning. Kapur explains that youth who are encouraged to fail forward are more likely to persist and develop confidence as problem-solvers. Even better news—as math confidence increases, math anxiety decreases.
4. Team up.
Traditionally, math study is an independent activity. And, not surprisingly, math achievement is typically measured by individual performance. However, while intrapersonal learning has an important place, modern research assures that math discovery shouldn't occur in a silo.
With SpringMath, for instance, instruction is delivered in various settings: as a whole group, in pairs, and independently. But, it's the partner work that takes the spotlight. SpringMath builds its classwide interventions upon a paired learning model, proven to help students build confidence in math. In these settings, learners practice using math language and vocabulary, flex their reasoning and perspective-taking skills, and even bolster empathy.
5. Make it relevant.
Research on the importance of relevant and relatable curricula is clear. When students view learning as an extension of or connection to their actual lives, they're more likely to engage and excel. Making math meaningful for students means using culturally-responsive examples that are reflective of their daily, lived experiences. Kids grow confidence when they see how they're already putting math concepts to work in their day-to-day lives. Optimally, this assurance carries with them as they explore more complex, challenging, and abstract math problems.