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Student Confidence in Mathematics

March 15, 2022 | By Dan Golub

The other day I was in a 6th grade math classroom. The scene was what you might expect: students working independently or with partners, worksheets featuring a string of problems on fraction division, the teacher pausing to address occasional outbursts. But then something magical occurred: the teacher invited students to do the problems on the board and their entire demeanor shifted. Wait, you mean, like, me? I can have my work on the board? It was as if they hadn’t considered themselves old enough or smart enough. Worthy enough.

This simple action of boosting student confidence by having them work on the board created a ripple effect; students became more engaged in their work and started referencing problems on the board. The buzz of intellectual stimulation was in the air.

Data shows that students across the country are behind in mathematics. In 2019, only 33% of 8th graders across the country performed at or above grade level on the NAEP proficiency exam. But what, exactly, does this mean? And what if part of the solution had nothing to do with math? Could boosting confidence in math actually improve student performance?

We operate in a culture where it’s okay to hit the HELP or EJECT button when doing math. Some students immediately give up when they see an improper fraction. Many adults regularly say things like, Well, I’m just bad at math! We need a shift in language and attitudes when it comes to learning math. Educators intuitively understand the importance of student confidence in mathematics and some recent research confirms this intuition.

A study of 903 middle school students by Herges et al (2017) confirmed a positive and statistically significant relationship between students’ math motivation (confidence) and their grades, and that high-achieving students had more positive attitudes towards mathematics. Siegle and McCoach (2007) found that training 5th grade math teachers in self-efficacy techniques (in other words, strategies to build student confidence) led to increased student self-efficacy (students became more confident) and that this was a significant predictor for student achievement on their math test. 

At Blueprint, we explicitly train our Math Fellows to use instructional strategies that boost student confidence. We are proud that 85% of Blueprint students say they are more confident in mathematics at the end of the year compared to the beginning of the year. So what leads to this boost in confidence? Strategies include:

  • Creating a vibrant learning environment that displays student work, goals, and expectations
  • Stressing the importance of language use, particularly around the expandability of intelligence  
  • Using Precise Praise to highlight specific intellectual contributions and the effort of students
  • Facilitating Number Talks and open-ended math tasks where students are encouraged to use a variety of strategies and methodologies to solve problems

In addition, Math Fellows have developed their own techniques for boosting student confidence:

  • Name specific things that students are doing well. For example, "I like that you labeled your number line," or "Great job taking your time to draw out your tape diagram." - Uma, Oakland Lead Math Fellow
  • Give students the opportunity to share their strategies for solving problems and praise them when they do! - Phoebe, Pittsburg (CA) Math Fellow
  • Use whiteboards as a place for students to show their thinking. Students are all excited to write on the whiteboard and the experience increases their confidence in the material. - Jillian, Commerce City (CO) Math Fellow
  • Give students responsibilities and choices. One of my students is reluctant to try harder problems so I put her in charge of dealing out cards for a review game. She appreciated the responsibility: she straightened up, took charge of the pacing of the game, and encouraged others with confidence. - Lauren, Oakland Lead Math Fellow
  • It's important to listen to students. Listen to them when they share their math trauma, assure them using a multiplication table is normal and FINE! Get excited about their lives. Know who plays what sports and ask how games/meets went. Kids are whole human beings and taking an interest in their whole person makes them more likely to work with you to build their skills and confidence. - Anneke, Oakland Math Fellow
  • For some students who are really lost, I will work one on one, and start by having them reading the questions on a worksheet and copy the answers. Then I gradually try to withdraw into the background and get them to work on their own. This might be called "guided starting." It does not immediately get them going, but helps them get into the game. - Dave, Oakland Math Fellow
  •  It was important as a Fellow that I stepped back and let students finish their ideas (and work through challenging steps!) on their own during this time — for students, recognizing that a Fellow trusts them and believes in them to persevere without help is a great motivator. - Matthew, East St. Louis Math Fellows Alum

Thanks to math fellows Uma, Phoebe, Jillian, Lauren, Anneke, and Matthew for contributing to this post!