Growing Students as Mathematicians: Building Capacity for Math Skills Confidence

Apr 27, 2021 6:47:08 PM / by EdCuration Staff Writer

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“There is one curriculum subject that tends to trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response like no other and that is math. This subject can cause sweaty palms, racing pulses, and inspire genuine fear and anxiety,” says primary school teacher John Dabell.  But that’s not the end of the story.  He adds: “It can also excite, entertain and energize in the right hands!”

Math can be fun- but it’s also necessary.  Math is a living subject.  It is present in nearly every aspect of life (not to mention, virtually every 21st-century career choice). Stanford University researchers also confirm that “children who know math can recruit certain brain regions more reliably, and have higher gray matter volume in those regions, than those who perform more poorly in math.” 

Here’s the bottom line: Students who do well in math in school are more likely to do better in life beyond the school years. 

So, what does “knowing math” even mean? From a skills performance perspective, first graders should be able to complete basic addition and subtraction problems. By second grade, most students should be able to access these through automatic recall (and should also know most of their 1, 2, 5, and 10 multiplication facts). Most end-of-year third graders should have developed automatic recall of 1-12 multiplication and have a basic understanding of division. These skills are cumulatively reviewed and built upon from fourth grade onward.  

Of course, not all learners will meet these benchmarks, for a wide variety of reasons.  And kids are smart- most will recognize if and when they have not achieved a given benchmark.  When this happens, diminished self-confidence is all but inevitable. 

If allowed to persist, low math confidence begins a cycle.  Students believe they are not successful at math, and this limiting belief interferes with performance.  The student scores lower once again, and confidence further deteriorates.  Sound familiar to you or a child you work with? 

The question then becomes:  How do we intercept this cycle? Let’s look at six ways to grow students as mathematicians, beginning with the basics: a belief that they can do it. 

1. Share positive attitudes about math. 

As adults, our personal relationships with math can influence the young people we work with. Many of us struggled with math in school ourselves. Others have felt frustration stemming from our kids’ (at school or home) encounters with the subject. Checking our own “math baggage” before entering the learning space can do wonders for the students in our care. Page a Day Math helps to remedy this by using the happy, smiling "math squad dogs" on every page to to offer positive comments, encouraging affirmations and cute kid jokes. It keeps math fun and light for kids and helps parents do the same. 

2. Promote a growth mindset.

As a society, we’re big on binary thinking- at least when it comes to math performance.  You’ve either got the math gene or you don’t, right? 

Well, sort of.  Some math aptitudes are innate, meaning that we’re born with them. But the vast majority of math skill proficiencies are accumulated- they’re learned and practiced.  The “have or have not” approach leads to a fixed mindset about math ability. Working to dismantle binary thinking opens doors to a growth mindset- exactly where we want students to be. 

3. Set math goals. 

“Not surprisingly, students do better when they feel in control of their learning,” explains Chase Nordengren for Phi Delta Kappan Journal. He points to Robert Marzano’s 2009 report linking goal setting to student learning gains of between 18 and 41 percentile points. Engaging students in setting achievable goals (and receiving meaningful feedback on their progress) puts learners in the driver’s seat and fosters motivation.  As they meet milestones along the way, math skills confidence also grows.

4. Keep it short. 

Science supports the idea that short, targeted rounds of skills practice are best when it comes to developing math skills proficiency. The University of Chicago School Mathematics Project recommends what they call “mental math and reflexes”- quick exercises that are “designed to strengthen children's number sense and to review and advance essential basic skills.”  The University explains that “numerous short interactions are far more effective than fewer prolonged sessions”.

One solution is to implement “short burst” learning systems like Page A Day Math. Page A Day Math is a math fact fluency supplement that supports all K-5 curricula because it introduces and reinforces math facts and improves fluency through step-by-step practice.  The curriculum is incrementally cumulative and holds students accountable through a build-in rewards system. Bite-sized learning sessions, like Page A Day Math, can draw learners in (and keep them there!). Meanwhile, completing these micro sessions provides a sense of accomplishment that can bolster confidence. 

5. Invite mistakes as learning opportunities

For many students, the subject of math can be intimidating. Unfortunately, intimidation and overwhelm impede positive risk-taking, which is critical to learning success. We can talk to kids openly and honestly about making mistakes and learning from them. We can even model this process (what many refer to as ‘failing forward’) ourselves. 

Using approachable elements like gameplay or the use of cartoon-type characters can also help break down math-related anxiety.  Math concept cartoons, like those found in Page A Day Math’s curriculum, can stimulate conversation around math missteps, promote risk-taking, and build math resilience (Dabell, 2019).

6. Build on to grow capacity

As students gain confidence and efficacy, it’s important to keep the momentum going! The University of Chicago recommends next steps like fact extension work. (For example, if a learner recognizes that 7+2=9, she might also see that 70+20=90 and that 700+200=900).  Fact triangles and function machines (like figuring out the “rule” in a pattern of numbers) are also natural extensions for math skills practice. 

A recent report from the National Institute of Education highlighted strong links between self-confidence and math performance. The paper closes: “From this study, we know that confidence is a much better predictor of students’ achievements than any other non-cognitive measure. In fact, it acts in a way that it overcomes everything else; so confidence is very important.”

By taking systematic and incremental steps toward math proficiency, we can reduce student overwhelm and foster self-confidence. With time and the right tools, learners begin to realize that they are mathematicians. This seemingly small realization- I can do it- creates an essential foundation for sustained math success.

Topics: Mathematics