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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Today's guest blogger is Judy Willis. A former neurologist, Judy is now is an elementary and middle school teacher as well as the author of numerous books on the brain and learning. This post is an excerpt from her latest,

Learning to Love Math.

Before children can become interested in math, they have to be comfortable with it. They must perceive their environment as physically and psychologically safe before learning can occur. Students build resilience and coping strategies when they learn how to use their academic strengths to build math skills and strategies. Your intervention helps them strengthen the networks that carry information through their brains' emotional filters to the area where higher-order thinking skills are concentrated, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). With practice, they will be able to use the highest-level analytical networks in the PFC to evaluate incoming information and discover creative solutions to math problems (in addition to problems in all subject areas). To better understand how your students learn, it is important to first learn how to propel information through those filters and begin building math positivity.

STRATEGY: Arrange Family Conferences

No one wants to add to student pressure, especially when you suspect that a student will suffer emotional or even physical abuse if he or she does not meet certain parental expectations in math. Parents with extremely high expectations for their children are usually motivated by a desire to see their children have more than they have themselves. Unfortunately, when children internalize these expectations and don't fulfill them, they can suffer depression, anxiety, physical illnesses (high levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress lowers the immune response), or psychosomatic illnesses, or they may even inflict physical injury on themselves and others. Family conferences can help parents learn some of the scientific evidence linking the effects of stress to academic success. These interventions will also allow you to explain that the first step to math success is a positive attitude toward the subject matter, not just to the grades associated with it.

You can also suggest ways for these parents to be involved in a positive way. Explain that the brain is most receptive to learning about a topic when there is a clear link between that topic and something the child values. Parents can act as "math allies" if they find ways to integrate real-world math into their child's hobbies and interests. For example, they can encourage their children to calculate how long it will be until their special television show begins if it is currently 3:00 and the show starts at 5:30. They can also help their children compare the costs of things they like (e.g., bicycles, toys, computers) in newspaper ads that offer various percentage discounts off different base prices.

STRATEGY: Retest to De-stress

Reassure all students that if they want to achieve high grades, they will have opportunities that will allow them to regain some sense of control, such as retests. Because progress in math is so strongly based on foundational knowledge, students need to achieve mastery in each topic?which forms the basis from which students can extend their neural networks of patterns and concepts?before they move to the next level. Retests provide opportunities to reevaluate answers and make corrections, as necessary. To ensure mastery, I require that students take a retest when they score under 85 percent. My primary goal is to have students learn the appropriate material so they can move forward with an adequate background for success.

Incorporating accountability into retesting allows students to build skills related to self-reliance, goal planning, and independent learning. Parents or colleagues may voice concerns that students might not act responsibly or seriously once they realize that they'll have a second chance. Accountability increases when you require students to provide evidence of corrective action, such as participating in tutoring, doing skill reviews, or finding textual examples that correctly demonstrate how the type of problem is solved. If the original test and retest scores are averaged together, students understand that they remain accountable for that first test grade. Compared with cheating (an unfortunate response to grade pressure that further decreases confidence and self-esteem), the option of taking retests is a more positive approach to low grades. Retesting takes time on your part, but it shows your students that you respect their capacity to be responsible, successful learners.

STRATEGY: Demonstrate the Value of Math

Key to developing students' interest in math is to capture their imaginations. Instead of allowing them to think of math as an isolated subject, show the extended values of math in ways they find inspiring. If you teach elementary school, find opportunities throughout the day to show students the ways they benefit from mathematics and how it is applicable to their areas of interest. For example, students can use math to determine the number of absent students by counting the students present and then "counting back" to subtract.

In upper grades, cross-curricular planning is a way to achieve this goal. Older students, for example, can solve meaningful problems related to the quantity and price of tickets they need to sell in order to cover their expenses for an upcoming field trip. When you increase your students' positive feelings toward mathematics, you unlock their brains' math-blocking filters, promote long-term memory, and foster greater understanding beyond rote memorization.

What are some techniques you've used to build positivity in your students in math or other subjects?


Comments (48)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

Learning to mastery is an even better way than simple retesting to handle learning subjects, including mathematics. With this approach, every student can, in theory, get an "A." Some will move ahead after achieving a lower grade, but most should go all of the way. Motivation beyond the grade will continue to be important, and Ms. Ray makes some good suggestions in this area.

I'm biased toward making science more exciting and using the investigation and discovery in the real world to support mathematics learning. Science provides endless opportunities to use math effectively.

The science being learned should involve real-world investigations including an occasional project. These "lab" experiences have to be real and involve data collection by students, preferably point by point. That way, they begin to feel the complexity and ambiguity that accompany any scientific investigation. They use mathematics to organize and display their data. Then, they use more math to analyze and condense them. Finally, they use scientific reasoning to come to conclusions.

Cossondra George's picture

You have many great points in your article. One point I disagree with is your policy on test retakes. While I strongly believe students should be encourage, even required, to retake tests to prove they have mastered skills, I do not see why you would give them an average of the 2 test scores. Say a student was completely confused on test #1 and scored a 20%. Then, this student works very hard to master those concepts, takes test #2, scoring 100%. WOW!! Great job, I would say! You have proven to me, your teacher, that you can do the work! Your policy, however, averaging the 2 scores this student would earn a D-. What an incentive to improve!

Many situations in life give the opportunity for retakes. Driving tests come to mind. Are you given 2/3 of a driver's license because you failed the first time through? Nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers... all have to pass certification tests in their profession. Many don't make the cut the first time, but are given the opportunity to retest. The new score is now their score, not a contrived combination of the previous scores.

School, education, our teaching... ought to be about the ultimate goal of our students mastering the content. Grades need to reflect that mastery.

I hope you will reconsider your policy and encourage your students to achieve without punishment.

Erika Burton's picture
Erika Burton
Teacher, Founder of Stepping Stones Together ,and Educational Entrepreneur

Mastery learning has its merits as the article suggests. The whole point of school is to learn. We need to remember that the experience we have and what we learn and NOT the grade should be the focus. Grades merely direct us to areas of need in our students. I wish we could move towards a more useful and positive learning system where students' thoughts are valued over their grades.
Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

As the two succeeding posters have suggested, emphasis on grades does not aid learning, and averaging grades should not be done. The rationale for so doing is weak.

Learning to mastery implies that the students set their own standards.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

We allow redos on tests for up to a 'B'. Kids seem to feel that's reasonable.

They get their actual score and I try to personally congratulate each student who makes an improvement. I ask what their secret was for doing better the second time. They often have great insights and it builds meta-cognition that'll help them later.

Also always have the final test question "How did you do?___ Explain.____ Very handy for figuring out where they are coming from, including "I didn't study."

I don't average for reasons above plus more work for me. I take the retake grade even if it's LOWER, to discourage kids from redoing on the off chance of doing better without taking the time to study. Hate it when they game the system. Love it when they do way better and learn both the material and discover their personal learning style.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

It seems strange to me that more online learning systems don't allow redos. In Smart Science(r) education, we allow up to three tries if the teacher so configures the system. The teacher gets to decide the "passing" grade, and students take the test until they either exceed that grade or use up their three tries.

We used to allow unlimited retries but stopped that when we saw students with 90 or more retries. They were just trying every combination of answers and not even reading the questions.

It's always amazing to me that students will put more effort into gaming the system that would have been required to learn the material.

Erik Bell's picture
Erik Bell
HS mathematics and AP Statistics teacher

I disagree that grades should reflect ultimate mastery. Grades are an assessment of an entire body of work. If a student didn't prepare properly or even "didn't get it" and received a poor score on a test, his grade needs to reflect that.
Now having said that, I do allow retakes. However, I allow only one per semester and the student must fill out an "application" stating, among other things, why he thinks he did poorly on the first test and why he thinks he will improve on the retake. And, he gets the retake score better or worse.

John's picture
Seventh grade teacher from Maryland

Our county has a policy that states that students who do not master the material must be retaught and then reassessed. The autonomy of this though is up to the classroom teacher. I agree with the previous blogger who states that the purpose of school is to learn. My policy is to reassess any student that gets under a 70% but they also must attend an individual tutoring session before the reassessment. Harnessing students fears on tests is a skill not taught by many teachers but important in many aspects of student learning.

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