Knowre Blog

"Students Don't Hate Math, They Hate Being Frustrated"

Posted by Sam Cressman on 6/17/19 4:48 PM
Sam Cressman
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“I’m not good at math.”

“I JUST don't get it!" 

"I don't know how to do it!"

As educators, we’ve all heard this before. Students often find themselves frustrated when it comes to their math abilities. The reasons are numerous and we may feel that they are "excuses" but in fact, students want to excel.  When students are having difficulty and become frustrated, they will respond with, "I hate math" or "I can't do it", and some stop trying altogether. 

Math Frustration

While this fact isn't surprising, it is always healthy to stop and reflect, "has Johnny become too frustrated?" "Should I back him up and do some review?" "Do I have the time to work with only Johnny?" These are the hurdles and questions we deal with far too often. Can we drop everything and provide some quality 1:1 instruction to get Johnny caught up and most importantly remove his frustration? We have all seen it when a student all of a sudden "gets it" and their face lites up with achievement, and not shockingly we as educators feel it too. The issue we have is usually time, and how there's just not enough.

Typically students AND adults self-categorize themselves as ‘math people’  if they excel in math and ‘non-math people’ if they find themselves frustrated and don't excel. "You either get it or you don’t." "You like math or you don’t." These statements are simply tied to their attempts or outcomes. This self-prescribed view will continue into adulthood. Ask yourself - "are your math skills solid?"

While student frustration is not surprising, what is surprising is how often parents also echo this sentiment to teachers. Teachers tell stories of how some parents say “I was never a math person” or “I was never good at math,” almost as if they were making excuses for why their child was struggling in math. As if math is determined by the genetic makeup of the student. A blog by Sarah D. Sparks titled "How Parents Contribute to Math Anxiety" for Education Week discusses how parents may hinder their child’s progress in math, simply by sharing their own anxiety around solving math problems.

We have previously blogged about Algebra I being the gateway course. Algebra introduces students to the language of math and develops students’ abstract reasoning and problem solving skills. These skills are critical in higher-level math classes, college, and the workplace. Furthermore, according to a study by Florida International University, students who failed Algebra 1 are over four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who passed the course. Frustration.

So it got us thinking: if you think you’re not a math person, and that you’re not good at math, then how will you ever succeed in math? And more importantly, how do we get students to believe that they can excel in math? How do we as educators remove the frustration and help our kids grow? With 5-6 classes of math a day, how do we find quality 1:1 instructional time? There is not a simple answer to this but we know that we need to: increase the ability for 1:1 instruction, reduce the student's frustration and increase opportunities for them to experience success. 

Students may grumble about why they need to learn math when they will not use math in the “real world” or when calculators are everywhere. However, math teaches us more than how to add, subtract, divide and multiply. Math teaches us to think critically and to apply concepts and to solve problems. And we use math all the time – yes, we might use the calculator on our phones to compute, but the process of knowing what numbers to add and multiply, knowing what questions to ask to finish solving a problem is what math teaches us.

Miles Kimball and Noah Smith wrote an article for Quartz where they state that categorizing oneself as a math person or a non-math person is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their article titled “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t” discusses how convincing students that intelligence is malleable. Students have the power to change their outcomes, and this belief can lead students to work harder and to improve with practice.

We, as educators, can’t be complicit and accept this explanation from or for our students. We must all work together to help students build confidence and reduce their level of frustration to persevere and give them the tools and skills they need to succeed.

So how do we get students to believe they can do math? Here are some strategies:

  1. Teach students that intelligence is malleable and that with perseverance they can do well in math.  Being successful in math can be rewarding.
  2. Get students to do more math! With more practice, students will build confidence, and with more confidence, students can overcome their fear of math. Success breeds the willingness to try more!
  3. Find resources like Knowre Math that will support student agency and allow students to progress at their level and speed.

Have other strategies on getting students to believe they can be good at math? Please share them with us on Twitter @Knowre.

Topics: Adversity, Student Success, Math Instruction