June 2024
Igniting Math in Math Phobic Students

Most of students either love or hate math in school.

When I taught math in grade five and later, algebra in middle school, I heard comments such as, “My parents said they were both bad at math, so they don’t expect to be good at it.” Others said, “My parents said they became successful (fill in the blank profession) without needing to use math beyond arithmetic.” A surprising number of parents still passed along the invalide stereotype that, “girls can’t do well in math.”

When students grow up hearing negative feelings about math they can be negatively impacted by that negativity. Some parents are concerned that they cannot help their students with math because they don’t remember what they learned. In contrast, parents who were very successful math learners and hold very high expectations for their children’s math performance, might trigger students to view math as a competition for grades. Others who harbor an intuitive sense for math that seems absent in their children, may create a frustrating impasse when asked for homework help. They may verbalize or otherwise convey their thoughts of: with “isn’t it obvious?” Some parents may still

Students taking on these beliefs are less likely motivated to put in sustained effort when math becomes challenging. These students, unsuccessful and uncomfortable with mathematics in elementary school, often fall progressively behind throughout middle and high school. One’s failure to succeed in algebra can be a limiting factor in career choice, satisfaction, and financial compensation.

Elementary arithmetic skills tend to be taught and assessed by rote memory. Students who are not traditional learners feel inadequate and lose math confidence. This results in a cascade of increased math anxiety, lowered self-confidence, alienation, and failure. Students who succeed in math primarily by rote memorization, without constructing understanding, risk problems in more advanced, complex math courses. These students are also less likely to select higher level math courses.

However, students who, beginning in elementary school, develop interest, motivation, and strategies to persevere through setbacks, are most likely to develop positive math attitudes. They are more likely to participate in and succeed at the advanced math courses in secondary school. They also do better in math and sciences in college. To help your students succeed in math confidence and motivated effort, help reduce math negativity and build their positive math attitudes.

Reversing Math Negativity
Reversing negativity may take months, especially if students have been repeatedly stressed to the point of feeling helpless and hopeless regarding their potentials for math success. To help them reduce that negative baggage, consider which of these interventions might help them create positive associations with math.
Remind discouraged students of previous successes that resulted from their persistence, effort, practice, and use of strategies they discovered as working well for them (metacognition). This will sustain further motivated and sustained effort as they increasingly recognize how their sustained efforts promote their success, regardless of past performance.

Real-world and personal connections build math understanding and interest

Long division: when your child has “learned” long division just by plugging numbers into the division process, they may not understand it enough to use division in other problems. For example, if their drills had them solve division problems with remainders, such as 130 divided by 18, they may tell you the answer is 7 remainder 4, or 7.22. However, if you ask him how many busses, holding 18 students each, will be needed to take the entire 5th grade of 130 students on the field trip, they may not even realize that is a division problem. If they do, will they know that 8 busses are needed, because there is no such thing as .222…. of a bus?

If you give them 130 toothpicks and clear plastic cups turned on their sides (even with wheels drawn on with marker pens) and asked them to see how they could model the problem of the school busses, they’d have fun and be building understanding with a real-live simulation.

Ratios and unit values
: Converting one type of currency to another offers opportunities to work with ratio, proportion, and unit values. To increase personal connection students can work with the currency of one of the family’s heritage countries. They then use current currency exchange rate charts such as http://www.x-rates.com/ to do conversions.

Their activity is to convert various sums of money back and forth between the two currencies. Personal interest can be added if they find the price of an item they hold dear, such as a skateboard or iPad and find the price in several countries. If they think there are significant price differences, they can seek out the exchange rates for the item to find the best bargain.

If sports are of high interest, figuring out batting averages in baseball is a math skill booster.

Motivation for learning to convert between metric numbers and standard numbers is increased when students are given a recipe they want to make, that is in metric quantities. They will be engaged in figuring out the standard equivalents, such as liters to cups.

Math discussions promote math thinking and reflect your appreciation of math
  • • Is there a similarity between…?
  • • How does this information relate to what you know about ….?
  • • What makes you think that?
  • • Why did you decide to do it that way?
  • • Are there any other ways to solve the problem?
  • • How would you explain your thinking to someone else?
  • • Are all squares rectangles? Are all rectangles squares?

Students’ negative feelings about math, and their own potentials for success, reduce their joyful and successful math learning. In addition, overemphasis on rote memorization for standardized tests can make the math classroom a competitive environment where students are acknowledged for facts they memorize but may not really understand.

When you help your students discover the beauty and value of math in in their daily lives and the world around them, they will understand more about the meaning and concepts of math. With this will come more motivated effort and access to success in the global, high-tech world regardless of their career paths.

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