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The Making of a Better Math Student: 3 Ways to Overcome Frustration and Encourage Learning

By Monica Fuglei June 20, 2017

Students often believe success in math classes requires them to be a “math person.” This thought is as common as a teacher’s struggle to prove that math can be fun. Fostering students’ joy in numbers is one way to help students excel, but helping them learn to learn can set them up for long-term success.

Habits of Effective Math Students

Prepare to work

While teachers understand learning often requires some struggle, students don’t necessarily arrive prepared for the pressure. Emerging students sometimes shut down in the face of fragile content knowledge, while high-performing students may find themselves frustrated with math equations for the first time and not sure how to proceed.

“Math requires effort, patience, and time,” teacher Elizabeth Cleland explains in an article for the Atlantic. Part of great math instruction means helping students develop an ability to stick with their studies even when they get frustrated.

One way to help students learn to appreciate struggle is to encourage them to see their effort as admirable. Sometimes even the wrong answers give us insight into student thinking. Consider adding effective failure to math instruction. Students who have the wrong answer can share what they did, allowing the teacher or other students an opportunity to clarify and explain.

A collective desire to learn and explain builds a strong math cohort and helps instill confidence in insecure students. Cleland points out that focusing on math’s processes, rather than the correct multiple-choice answers, helps students understand the inherent logic of the work they are doing.

Explain everything in multiple ways

To understand the inherent logic of math, students sometimes need equations and problems explained in multiple ways. Education Week reported that in a survey of 1,700 students who participated in Moody’s Math Challenge, a competition of America’s most successful math students, nearly two-thirds identified “understanding underlying concepts behind math formulas” as essential for understanding their work.

Parents may deride “new math” and roll their eyes at different explanations and expressions of the same problem, but diversity in our thinking means that multiple math “languages” may be necessary for students to fully understand a concept. Recently, as I was struggling with a math equation in an astronomy/English learning community, my astrophysicist co-teacher said, “You have bad math grammar.” Her uncommon way of explaining my mistakes helped me understand what I was doing wrong. Sometimes the biggest challenge in teaching math is finding a language that reaches everyone.

In an article for Edutopia, Matthew Beyranevand suggests teachers use multiple representations and solve a problem in as many ways as possible. This advice targets illustrating explanations and solutions in different math languages for students. Even better: If students appear to understand a problem, challenging them to explain it in a different way can help affirm that they understand the underlying concepts clearly.

Teach them how to study

Many students who struggle haven’t yet learned how to study. Outlining tips and tricks for success in a class is incredibly helpful. Of course, teachers are full of great advice, but fellow students are sometimes the ones our classes listen to. One year’s cohort may have the best advice for the next set of students, so collect their knowledge and pass it on.

It also can be good to help students practice their math skills with supervision and instruction from the teacher. While it may not always be appropriate, adopting some flipped-classroom principles or working with whiteboarding in class can be great ways to see if students “get” the material and can explain its basic principles. Follow these meetings up with assignments that echo what students practiced in class to help lock in the skills. In his blog Flippingmath, Graham Johnson notes the benefits to a flipped-model math class include increased opportunities for differentiation and more time for direct student engagement.

Often instruction time is so packed with content, it feels impossible to address affective or soft skills of students, particularly if one of the barriers to learning is in their attitude. It’s an effective use of time to help students reset their understanding of and relationship with math.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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