Back to: Module: Helping Students Do Math
Slide 1: Hello, I’m Dan, the “young guy” who was mentioned in the first webinar. This webinar covers some of the basic ways in which students (and others) experience math and the attitudes toward math that develop as a result.
Slide 2: Perhaps more than any other subject, math tends to be a “love it” or “hate it” subject. Why is that? Try asking a student who likes math why he or she likes it. The answer will often be something like “because I’m good at it” or “math just seems to come naturally for me.” Similarly, those who don’t care for it tend to say things like, “I’m just not a math person.” Is this true? Are some people’s brains wired to be good at math while other people are doomed to never-ending confusion in math?
Slide 3: As it turns out, the answer is “no.” Research has shown that math learning is improved more by effort than by some natural talent or gift. It’s true that some people may catch onto a particular math concept more quickly than others. However, it’s also true that almost anyone can learn math ideas if given the right stepping stones.
Slide 4: So why do some people “think” they cannot learn math? What is the problem?
Slide 5: The problem is that habits form early on. On the one hand, students who think they are no good at math give up more quickly and so they learn less. On the other hand, students who consider themselves good at math spend more time on the subject because they enjoy it, and so they learn more. Because math constantly builds on earlier knowledge, the math gap grows with every school year.
Slide 6: The good news is that, at any point, this negative cycle can be reversed by convincing someone that he or she can learn math concepts. Helping students to realize that most of math ability is tied to effort instead of genes can be motivating. It’s much more satisfying to work on anything when you are confident that your efforts will produce results, and math is no exception.
Slide 7: Another thing that can hinder math learning is bad memories. Just like it can be uncomfortable to see a former boyfriend or girlfriend with whom you had a bad breakup, many students suffer from a dark history with math.
Slide 8: Sometimes the bad memories come from external sources. Perhaps a teacher scolded a student for not getting enough answers right, or perhaps the student was punished by his or her parents for low grades in math. Even worse, the student may have suffered humiliation by having his or her questions or answers ridiculed in front of their classmates. Other bad memories come from internal sources. Over time, a student may have associated his or her temporary difficulties performing well in math with just being “stupid” in general.
Slide 9: Whether the negative feelings related to math have external sources, internal sources, or both, it is important for paraprofessionals and teachers to help heal these wounds.
Slide 10: Of course, many paraprofessionals and teachers have wounds of their own from bad experiences with math. In one of the activities in this unit, you’ll respond to some statements to see whether math anxiety is a problem for you. If it is, how can you heal your own wounds first?
Slide 11: Here are a few quick tips on reducing math anxiety. They are just as applicable to paraprofessionals as they are to students. In the overview section of this unit, you can find the link to a webpage with a more complete list of tips.
Slide 12: Math anxiety is more than just some negative feelings towards math; it can be a serious problem. In fact, some students have extreme amounts of anxiety around math. They cannot even focus clearly on a problem when they see one on a page or the blackboard. In other words, they begin to panic, and their minds grow foggy.
Slide 13: If you sense this happening with a student while working on a math problem together, do not continue to push the student. Instead, try taking a small break and asking the student to talk about what he or she is feeling. Even though this takes extra time, the student will be much more productive when he or she feels relaxed. By showing the student that you are willing to listen, you can help create a safe space for him or her to work in.
Slide 14: During high-stakes testing situations, anxiety can reach potentially dangerous levels. On a couple of situations, I have witnessed students having a breakdown during a math test. In one particularly severe case, a girl even went into seizures during a test. When you notice students looking particularly upset, you may suggest that they put the test down. Tell them to close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then try working on a different problem.
Slide 15: Another way that you can create a more positive math learning experience for students is in how you approach failure. The reality is that even the greatest mathematicians make plenty of errors; in fact, dead ends and incorrect assumptions are much more common than correct breakthroughs! The important message for students is that the breakthroughs can’t come without making mistakes.
Slide 16: Not only are mistakes necessary, but they are one of the most valuable resources for a math teacher. A mistake provides a rare piece of evidence for what is going on inside a student’s head. A careful minute spent looking at a student’s mistakes is often worth more than 10 minutes trying to explain a concept to a student. How would you feel if your doctor began prescribing several “effective” medicines for you before even listening to what your symptoms were?
Slide 17: Just like a patient’s symptoms tell the doctor which medicine to prescribe, a student’s mistakes are the symptoms that allow the paraprofessional or teacher to see how the student views the math. A student who puts “3” as the answer to “2 – 5” has a different issue than a student who puts “7”. Can you guess what misunderstanding each of these students might be holding?
Slide 18: So far, we’ve focused mostly on negative experiences and attitudes. What about the positive ones? In fact, handling the positives well is also important. Consider the following situation.
Slide 19: Susan has been working on a difficult word problem for most of a class period and she finally comes up to you and asks tentatively, “Is this the correct answer?” (It is.) You could say something like, “Yes! That’s right!” or perhaps something like, “Wow, I’m so impressed that you stuck with the problem for so long, Susan!” The second comment is preferable in the long run. It sends the message that you value her effort (which is within her control) more than just the correctness of the answer (which is not always within her control).
Slide 20: In summary, emotions play a large role in learning math. Negative emotions such as anxiety can hinder or even prevent a student from learning new material. A positive sense of confidence can motivate students to work longer on problems. Students will try harder when they believe that ability is a result of effort rather than natural talent and that mistakes are normal signs of progress. Above all, take time to be aware of what a student is both feeling and thinking when doing math.