How Do I Keep Students from Giving Up on Math?
A MiddleWeb Blog
Over the Thanksgiving break (yea!) I had a chance to think about my classes and how things are going. Overall, things are fine. However, something a student said right before we left for break has really weighed on my mind.
The student said, “Math class is getting hard and math has always been my best class.” (The class was Algebra 2 with Trig.) This is a good student who always gives a good effort. It was troubling because it was obvious that the student was discouraged and was ready to give up.
As I began thinking about it, I realized that it’s not just the one student. I often hear things like, “I just can’t do math” or “it’s too hard.” In fact, some students have given up before they get to my class. They ran into some concept in a previous class that they found difficult and it continues to affect them.
Some students can share exactly when “math got hard.” For some, it was when they had to memorize their multiplication tables; for others it was when they had to start using letters in math (their words).
After their particular event, they struggled to be successful in math class again. They had run into something they’d found difficult and weren’t able to work through it. I think part of the problem is that students’ confidence in math is so tenuous to begin with that they don’t think about a difficult single concept as a challenge to work through. Instead they go straight to “I’m not good at math.” When a student gets to that point, they would rather give up than risk trying and failing.
Am I creating conditions for failure?
So I’ve been thinking: am I setting my students up for failure? I certainly don’t mean to. I try to give every student the support and help they need. But are there things that are going on in my classroom that could contribute to students giving up? It scares me to think that my class could be the class where a student finally just gives up on math.
I know a lot of MiddleWeb readers are middle school math teachers. But much of what I’ve written about in this blog seems to resonate across the secondary grades. I think this is another topic where we all share some basic concerns.
The unit we are currently on is Quadratic Functions, which covers a lot of territory. It includes factoring and completing the square which can be difficult concepts under even ideal circumstances.
The student quoted earlier was in a class period that faced unique challenges. This class had been interrupted many times over the past few weeks: twice for me to attend professional development, once for state playoffs for the football team, once for an evacuation during a small fire that kept us outside for over the half the period.
It is also my largest class with 30 students. I can’t control the school schedule or the class sizes, but there are things that are under my control. So I started thinking – What can I change in my classroom that will help students keep trying even when they face a setback? How do I help students avoid giving up on math?
Idea 1: Spiraling the Content
This is important because I want students to have another go at the content they struggled with initially. I think it’s discouraging when you don’t get another chance to show that you can do something. I want them to have the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can do it. Also, returning to a topic after a little break can make all the difference. Sometimes students need time to let ideas percolate.
Last year I started trying to spiral content or provide “spaced practice” by assigning homework that addressed content previously learned. I wrote about it in this blog post. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to implement it in a way that I thought was meaningful.
So I have spent a lot of time over my Thanksgiving break researching how to spiral content in my class in a way that is doable and impactful. I’ll be honest, it seems a little overwhelming. I still don’t have it figured out. But I’m determined to make it work, so I’m going to find a way to integrate it successfully into my teaching, and I promise to write about my results later.
Currently, my plan is to start small. In a few weeks, I am going to get everyone up at the board working on a problem that involves the concepts from our unit on quadratics. I hope I will improve in this area as time goes on. If anyone is currently spiraling or interleaving in their math class, please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments!
Resources for spiraling content:
Henri Picciotto’s Math Education Newsletter
The Complete Guide to Spiralling Your Math Curriculum
Idea 2: Allow Retakes on Classroom Tests
I think retakes are valuable, and I use them with good success in my AP Statistics class. I allow a student to take a different version of the test, with the caveat that the test needs to retaken before I give the test for the next unit. That reduces the amount of binders I have to have out at one time. It also gives a timeline for students who may have trouble keeping deadlines. So far I haven’t had any students abuse the opportunity.
I have resisted retakes in my Algebra 2 classes this year because of the sizes of my classes. I usually have a total of about 20 AP Stats students and I have around 100 Algebra 2 students. I worried that allowing retakes in that larger class will be more than I can handle. But if I’m going to give a good faith effort to help my students avoid giving up, I think this is something I need to do. Again, please share your experiences (especially if you have large classes!).
Idea 3: Share Some Personal History
I think what the student I quoted earlier also meant was that math class is getting hard and it had always been easy for her before. I can sympathize. Math came naturally to me, and I loved the logic and the patterns I saw in numbers. Everything was great until long division. It made no sense to me, and I wasn’t interested in figuring it out.
I began to wonder if I had ever really been good at math to start with. I won’t lie, long division was a long drawn-out affair until I finally got it. Looking back I wouldn’t call any of it easy or fun. I had got to my “hard part” and I wanted to give up.
Fortunately I had a teacher who was willing to work with me to get past my sense of failure. I remember a lot of patient one-on-one help and kind encouragement. By telling my own story and sharing the experiences of others, I hope I can help students avoid the trap of thinking, “I might as well give up, I’m not good at math anyway.” Everyone runs into a concept that they find difficult; it does not define you as a math student.
Idea 4: Make Sure Students Have an Adequate Foundation
Math success requires prerequisite knowledge. Constantly lacking the tools you need to solve problems would make anyone want to give up. For the current Quadratic Functions unit, prerequisite skills include factoring trinomials and multiplying binomials. I knew students weren’t strong in this area, but I was unaware of the degree they struggled. I did not adequately address the skills they needed to be successful.
As usual I was fighting a battle with pacing and time. I thought we would be able to address the gaps as we went, and it ended up discouraging some of the students. So, in the future, no cutting corners. If I know students need extra time for foundational skills, I’m going to give it to them.
I want students to leave my class with more math confidence than they had to start with – not defeated and thinking that “it’s just too hard.” Even though I’m a little daunted by the amount of work that it’s going to take to implement my plan, I’m going to try.
It certainly all won’t happen this year. But I think it’s a good plan. I’m sure with more research (Twitter, here I come!) and some input from other teachers, I can make key changes that will do some good. Please share how you’ve kept students from giving up in your math class!