Special Report

Who’s Afraid of Math? Turns Out, Lots of Students

By Sarah Schwartz — May 05, 2020 7 min read
From left, Abbas Hussain, Alecia Costella, Sarozini Shrestha, and Lola Cortes discuss the “math moments” that have shaped their feelings about the subject as part of a StoryStrong lesson at Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel, Md.
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Most days in Molly Schaefer’s 8th grade geometry class, her students are focused on math concepts—learning about radians or cross-sections of three-dimensional figures. But one Friday about a month before the coronavirus closed schools, the objective on the board didn’t have anything to do with equations or shapes.

Instead, the goal was self-reflection: naming the emotions the students would need to be successful in math class this year and in the future.

The lesson was part of a pilot program developed by math educators in the Howard County, Md., schools. The program aims to counteract students’ fears that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in math class, and it’s built on the insight that children can have strong emotions around academics—and those emotions can sabotage learning.

Though the program—a supplement to the more standard math curriculum—is tiny now, plans call for its expansion to 8th grade math classrooms across the 59,000-student district.

Research backs the idea that emotions and outlook play a role in math performance. Math anxiety has been linked to avoidance of the subject and worse math performance over time. It’s a factor that many teachers say they’re confronting in the classroom. In a representative survey of U.S. teachers this year, 67 percent told the Education Week Research Center that math anxiety was a challenge for their students.

“I remember, my first year [with the program], being completely taken aback by the number of people who wrote negative things about themselves and their math ability,” said Schaefer, who teaches the curriculum in both on-level and gifted and talented math courses at Murray Hill Middle School.

Jon Wray, the district’s coordinator of secondary mathematics, knows that it might seem strange to talk so much about feelings and attitudes in math class. When a team of teachers, coaches, and district instructional specialists was first developing the curriculum, he remembers thinking the activities seemed more like health-class lessons.

But reading student reflections on the subject made him realize just how personal and fraught students’ relationships with math can be. “If we don’t attend to students’ emotions in the math classroom,” Wray said, “we’re missing a huge piece of supporting them.”

And giving students an outlet to talk about their feelings and their lives is even more important now with schools shut down in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, Schaefer said. With learning resources online, she plans to continue the curriculum, called StoryStrong, in modified form.

Wray adds that it’s important that the program continue next year, whether school buildings are open or instruction is still remote. “What’s become abundantly clear is the importance of supporting student well-being as a top priority,” he said.

‘A Lot of Fear’

Back in February, in the classroom, Schaefer told her students that they would spend the class period thinking about their strongest memories of doing math—and the emotions associated with those memories.

She aired a clip from “Inside Out,” an animated movie about the inner life of a young girl, Riley, in which her emotions—joy, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust—are personified as individual characters. The video depicted Riley’s earliest memories and the emotional weight they carried.

The students, 8th graders in a gifted and talented geometry class, watched, laughing with their deskmates at the jokes on screen.

“I really pushed for having all of the 8th graders do [StoryStrong],” Schaefer had said earlier, in an interview. Even the students in her gifted and talented classes have “a lot of fear” when it comes to math, she noted.

“They’re hesitant to show that they don’t have all of the answers,” she said. “It might be, ‘I’m afraid to be found that I don’t belong here. That I don’t belong in an above-grade-level class.’ A lot of kids feel the pressure of ‘I’m not smart.’ ”

That pressure was evident as Schaefer asked students to reflect on the character Riley’s defining memories and share their own “math moments”—experiences that shaped the way they thought about themselves or the subject.

Molly Schaefer, an 8th grade teacher in the Howard County, Md., schools, is piloting a home-grown supplemental math curriculum designed to help students overcome negative thoughts about their math abilities.

Some remembered fun activities—a student who mentioned making orange juice as part of an Algebra 1 lesson received a chorus of “ohs” and “I remember thats” from the class. But others brought up moments that had caused them to question their math abilities beginning in the early grades.

One student talked about dropping down to on-grade-level math from an advanced class in 2nd grade. Another remembered her insecurity when she started in gifted and talented classes in 6th grade. “Everyone else knew what they were doing, and I just sat there, not knowing anything,” she said.

“There’s a lot of emotion tied up in your schoolwork, because that’s what you’re doing right now. That’s what you spend most of your day on,” Schaefer told the class.

She asked students to reflect in writing: How could they have responded to those moments to get the outcome they wanted? What had they learned about themselves? What emotions did they want to bring into math class going forward?

“Confidence,” said one student, naming the emotion she wanted in a follow-up discussion, “so I don’t second-guess my answers.”

Forward-Looking Approach

The math curriculum is one piece of the larger StoryStrong program in the district, which started a few years ago, said Wray.

It began as an English/language arts unit in high school classes in which students wrote personal stories with the option to perform them live at a countywide event. “It’s designed to tap into the power of personal narrative and student voice,” Wray said.

The math-specific curriculum is still in early stages—Schaefer is the only teacher who uses it in the district—but Wray wants to see it expanded to all 8th grade math classes.

Eighth grade is a critical year, noted David Yeager, an associate professor of psychology and an expert in “growth mindset” at the University of Texas at Austin. Math performance in that year is one of the biggest predictors of students’ progress in the subject in high school.

So, Yeager and other experts say, helping students get into a positive frame of mind—building their belief that they can get smarter at math with work and the right help—is worthwhile. But there are some cautions involved.

By 8th grade, students already have a history with math—and developing a mindset of growth rather than one predicated on fixed intelligence can be a challenge. “Beliefs change is a tricky thing,” Yeager said. “It doesn’t help to dwell too much on what you used to believe and what you should believe, especially when you’re talking about teenagers. They’re not dying to be told to believe something different.”

For example, one lesson in the StoryStrong curriculum asks students to talk to their families about their math history. That kind of activity could have mixed results: Some research has shown that thinking about family members’ dislike of math can actually encourage a more fixed mindset in children, Yeager said.

But a lot depends on framing, he added. Teachers could take a more forward-looking approach, talking about their class as a place where students are constantly trying to improve.

Studies have shown that community is an important factor in developing mindset: If a student’s peer group doesn’t have a growth mindset, the student is less likely to have one, Yeager said. The StoryStrong program includes some activities that build community around math, asking students to work together to describe a class identity.

The curriculum doesn’t just focus on students’ perception of their abilities, though—it also addresses their emotions. And that reflects a growing interest among psychologists, Yeager said. Researchers are investigating whether recasting feelings of stress and anxiety can be an important part of improving performance.

Yeager said schools should be thinking about how to create “mindset-supportive” environments. But he cautions that attempts to foster more positive attitudes and emotions around math don’t happen in a vacuum.

“Classroom context matters,” he said. If students are told to try hard problems and think creatively but aren’t given opportunities to do that, “the idea that you can learn and improve feels less true.”

Pause and Reflect

There aren’t any data yet on the math pilot’s effect on student achievement, Wray said. But anecdotally, Schaefer said, it’s changed some students’ relationship to the subject.

StoryStrong offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on the challenges posed by fears and frustrations, she said. “A lot of times they don’t know what’s holding them back, so they don’t get to move beyond it.”

During the school shutdown, StoryStrong math lessons remain available for Schaefer’s students to access online. But the lessons are optional, she said, and condensed. In distance learning, Schaefer has a lot less time with her students than she would have had if they were in class together.

Normally toward the end of the school year, Schaefer said, she’s talking to her 8th graders about high school. She prompts them to be more self-reliant in class, reminding them that habits of working hard with a can-do attitude will support them as they move to more challenging courses.

Now she’s approaching her distance learning the way she used to approach StoryStrong lessons in the classroom: giving students an outlet to explain how they are feeling—about their math progress, and about the seismic changes the shutdowns have caused. Said Schaefer: “This is an emotional thing.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2020 edition of Education Week as Who’s Afraid of Math? Turns Out, Lots of Students

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