To Get Students Interested In Math, Address Their “Self-Concept”

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Darryl Yong is a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, but in the 2009-2010 academic year, he became a math teacher at an urban public school—because, he writes, “I am deeply concerned about mathematics education and I wanted to see what a typical high school in my city is like. Because I regularly work with high school mathematics teachers, I wanted to experience the life of a high school teacher for myself.”

Yong describes what he learned in an article in the current Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The part of his account that I found most interesting was about his efforts to change his students’ “self-concept” regard math. Self-concept refers to the way we appraise our abilities in a particular domain; Yong notes that “the variable that correlates most strongly with student achievement is student self-concept,” and laments that “the vast majority of people in our country have a low math self- concept—many almost see it as a badge of honor to be bad at math.”

Addressing his students’ low math self-concept—their belief that they “weren’t good at math”—made a big difference, Yong reports:

“During this year I repeatedly observed that my attempts to make learning engaging (by using fun activities, putting mathematics in contexts that students could relate to, making connections to prior learning) were helpful, but not nearly as helpful as attending to students’ self-concepts as learners of mathematics . . .

I learned that, regardless of how ‘tough’ some students are or how weak their math skills are, teenagers still love feeling successful when they become good at something or when they figure something out. A sequence of small successes can lead students to develop intrinsic motivation to learn and take risks in a classroom . . .

I found that 95 percent of the cases when one of my students was disruptive or seemed  uninterested in learning were the result of the student not understanding what to do or how to do something. Often this happened because I gave poor instructions or because the mathematical tasks that students confronted grew in complexity too quickly or chaotically . . .

As I began to understand the importance of attending to students’ self-concept, I noticed my students becoming more engaged in learning mathematics. I initially spent a great deal of time thinking of fun or creative lessons that would get students excited. These lessons rarely worked because they were often too complicated or inappropriate for my students’ mathematical development.

Instead, I began to design my lessons and accompanying student work so that (1) all of my students could successfully complete the first problem or task independently, and in which (2) the sequence of problems/tasks matched my students’ tolerance for challenge and self-concept.

This strategy not only increased student learning but also eliminated most of the discipline issues in my class and relieved the pressure of having to develop whiz-bang ‘fun’ lessons every day.” (Read more here.)

This makes so much sense—what all people want, young and old, is to feel competent and successful. So many of us have never had the opportunity to feel this way about math. By thinking explicitly about his students’ math self-concept, and coming up with ways to strengthen it, Young was able to get his students interested and engaged in learning. Not bad for an ivory-tower professor!

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One Response to “To Get Students Interested In Math, Address Their “Self-Concept””

  1. Prof. Young is to be applauded for his insights and the actions he took to address his students’ needs; very often it comes down to teachers blaming their students for their lack of success. The issue of math anxiety is well known, and the recent study, “When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math” shows that the issue is a lot more complex than what was previously believed. Beyond their knowledge of the subject, which is difficult enough, math teachers need to have a thorough understanding of the psychological dimension that affects their students, including issues of stereotype threat, which suppresses achievement in girls and people of color.

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