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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Kids Master Mathematics When They're Challenged But Supported

Math test scores soar if students are given the chance to struggle.
By Bernice Yeung
Credit: Getty Images

New Jersey teachers have found a surprising way to keep students engaged and successful: They let underachieving youngsters get frustrated by math.

While working with minority and low-income students at low-performing schools in Newark for the past seven years, researchers at Rutgers University have found that allowing students to struggle with challenging math problems can lead to dramatically improved achievement and test scores.

"We've found there is a healthy amount of frustration that's productive; there is a satisfaction after having struggled with it," says Roberta Schorr, associate professor in Rutgers University at Newark's Urban Education Department. Her group has also found that, though conventional wisdom says certain abilities are innate, a lot of kids' talents and capabilities go unnoticed unless they are effectively challenged; the key is to do it in a nurturing environment.

"Most of the literature describes student engagement and motivation as having to do with their attitudes about math -- whether they like it or not," Schorr says. "That's different from the engagement we've found. When students are working on conceptually complex problems in a supportive environment, they do better. They report feeling frustrated, but also satisfaction, pride and a willingness to work harder next time."

Former Newark middle school math teacher Debra Joseph-Charles says the Rutgers training taught her to see her role as that of a guide. In her classes, she assigned rich word problems, then gave students a few minutes to work individually in a way that emphasized their strengths.

"If you are good at computations and you want to do it that way, you can," says Joseph-Charles, now a math coach in the school district. "If you are a visual learner and you want to draw, you can. Or if you want to use manipulatives, you can. You hear this rhetoric about there being this and that type of learner, but no one really gives students the opportunity to learn in different ways in the math classroom."

Using the Rutgers method of group learning, Joseph-Charles's students organized themselves into groups so that each student could explain how she arrived at an answer. The other students in the group gave constructive criticism about the pros and cons of each approach. Each group then decided which method was best and presented it to the class.

"Children who were failing are now quite successful," Joseph-Charles says of her former math students. "They're solving problems in ways we didn't see as a possibility but which were valid."

Naga Madhuri Philkhana, another former teacher turned math coach in Newark, says the Rutgers approach gave her students a sense of accomplishment. "You bring out their confidence by letting them have their own way of looking at problems and sharing it in the classroom," she says.

After teachers like Joseph-Charles and Philkhana began applying the Rutgers techniques in the classroom, students showed more interest in math, and the math test scores at what were among the lowest-performing schools in the state began to soar. (In comparison, the language arts scores often remained the same or decreased.) Schorr was delighted but admits she was also surprised at the rising scores and how they have continued to improve year after year.

Since 2003, the average standardized math test scores among fourth graders in Newark schools have risen from 45 percent to 79 percent. As a result of its success, math teachers across New Jersey are now receiving professional development in the Rutgers method through a federally funded series of webinars called MathNext.

Schorr and her colleagues at Rutgers, with the help of MetroMath researchers in New York City, have begun identifying how and when students appear to be most engaged in math so they can train teachers to create and sustain that engagement. A number of their academic-journal articles on the subject have been published, and more are forthcoming.

"Motivation is a key aspect of achievement that we often ignore in math; it's the missing link," Schorr says. "We need to provide kids with conceptually challenging math problems in an emotionally safe environment, and the teacher plays a critical role in that. Kids can view frustration as an opportunity for success instead of an indication of failure, but that won't happen without teachers letting the students experience productive struggles."

Bernice Yeung is a contributing editor for Edutopia.

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Clayton T. Baker U. Baldwin City, KS's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I personally found the article very interesting for many reasons. First, I found it very refreshing to see that an entire area is benefitting from this teaching method. The results have shown a very significant increase in the student's performance in mathematics. I find it fascinating that frustration makes students more productive, as the Newark area grew over thirty percent in math with this technique. It is ironic that motivation can come from frustration as I have always found the inverse to be true for me. The only thing I want to know more about is how is this process a "supportive environment" when the students are supposed to reach the level of frustration. Obviously, this method works and has worked well, but I am still seeking more clarification. A true teacher does what is best for the student, finding ways to enrich the pupil's thirst for knowledge. Guiding a child to knowledge sounds infinitely better than drilling information into him!

Andrea Reinhard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree and disagree with this article. I have gotten to the point of complete frustration in math before, where I want to throw the book down and not finish. It is the point where I could care less what grade I got because it just did not matter to me anymore. I never want my students to feel that way. So letting them get frustrated about math can only go so far. I agree with giving them a chance to solve a particular problem in whatever way makes sense to them and then showing them some of the ways other students may have solved it, or a new way they may not know yet. Motivation is the key to mathematics. If a student is not motivated, they will have no confidence in themselves to learn the material, and they will get frustrated to the point of giving up. I feel like it is okay to let a student struggle and frustrate over a problem for a short amount of time, which will hopefully help them feel motivated to figure out the solution.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this article was very interesting. I never would have thought that frustration would be so motivating. I never had this kind of teaching growing up, so I think that it would take some practice for me to learn how to teach it effectively. I have used the think pair share activity and manipulatives in learning and I think it is very important in the classroom setting. I am interested in learning more about this strategy so that I can use it in my future classroom.

Emily B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a student whom, for many years now, absolutely hates math, this concept and method of math instruction is one that I wish would have been discovered years ago. Though I never found math to be natural or easy, the idea that it should be a challenge for each individual student is extremely appealing. A challenge, to me, does not mean that you don't understand the work that needs to be accomplished, but rather that you are working your hardest at that challenge to get the correct result.
On the other side of the coin, my frustration in math resulted in teachers who did not take this idea completely to heart. The basis of this concept is that each student will need to be challenged in a different way and that no way is incorrect. As a visual learner, I draw pictures for each and every math problem that I encounter. The reason why math has never appealed to me is because I have never had a teacher that nourishes my learning style instead of calling it silly or inappropriate. As a senior in college, I am still allowed to draw pictures to explain my rationale!
So for any educators or future educators reading this article, you have to accept the good with the bad, as they say. Don't challenge students without allowing them to meet the challenge in the way they feel most secure.

Katy K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Capitalizing on the emotions that play into problem solving seems to be working. The fact that the students get frustrated then come to an understanding, a deeper understanding than they would have without the frustration, (all of their own volition) says a lot about the power of confidence and resiliency. Furthermore, it is often said in social skills lessons that it's okay to make mistakes because we learn from them. Becoming frustrated in the middle of solving a problem is essentially the same concept. This is true in music and the arts as well. We see that resolution is so much sweeter after dissonance, it is felt more intensely; or in the case of learners, learned more intensely.

Personally, I see that I learn more authentically when I have to overcome an obstacle before I understand a concept. Once I overcome the frustration (obstacle) I have taken ownership of the knowledge, the concept, and will remember it more comprehensively. Going in the direction of memory, the brain is trying to create new neural pathways and find connecting peptides of knowledge to attach a new concept to when learning. The frustration gives our brains a chance to search around and find those connections; whereas, the standard mode of teaching by telling only creates weak bonds to knowledge in our memory. Therefore, on a biological or physiological level, it also makes sense to save some time for a little frustration and inquiry in order for the neural pathways to develop strong bonds. This article got me thinking!

Katy K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Capitalizing on the emotions that play into problem solving seems to be working. The fact that the students get frustrated then come to an understanding, a deeper understanding than they would have without the frustration, (all of their own volition) says a lot about the power of confidence and resiliency. Furthermore, it is often said in social skills lessons that it's okay to make mistakes because we learn from them. Becoming frustrated in the middle of solving a problem is essentially the same concept. This is true in music and the arts as well. We see that resolution is so much sweeter after dissonance, it is felt more intensely; or in the case of learners, learned more intensely.
Personally, I see that I learn more authentically when I have to overcome an obstacle before I understand a concept. Once I overcome the frustration (obstacle) I have taken ownership of the knowledge, the concept, and will remember it more comprehensively. Going in the direction of memory, the brain is trying to create new neural pathways and find connecting peptides of knowledge to attach a new concept to when learning. The frustration gives our brains a chance to search around and find those connections; whereas, the standard mode of teaching by telling only creates weak bonds to knowledge in our memory. Therefore, on a biological level, it also makes sense to save some time for a little frustration and inquiry in order for the neural pathways to develop strong bonds. This article got me thinking!

Amanda H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I do agree that this method of instruction could be successful, I think I would personally have a hard time going through with it. When I see a student struggling, I immediately want to help them and show them the right way, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do with the Rutgers method talked about in this article. This reminds of the first math problem we were given this semester and were allowed lots of time to work on. Many people got frustrated and gave up, but others were bound and determined to find the right answer. I think there is drive in every student, but teachers need to know how to find that drive in each individual. In subjects like math, this may be the best way to find that drive, but in other subjects it might not be so successful.

Amanda H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I do agree that this method of instruction could be successful, I think I would personally have a hard time going through with it. When I see a student struggling, I immediately want to help them and show them the right way, which is exactly what you're not supposed to do with the Rutgers method talked about in this article. This reminds of the first math problem we were given this semester and were allowed lots of time to work on. Many people got frustrated and gave up, but others were bound and determined to find the right answer. I think there is drive in every student, but teachers need to know how to find that drive in each individual. In subjects like math, this may be the best way to find that drive, but in other subjects it might not be so successful.

Nikki Shepherd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is surprising to find out that this is a new discovery. Anyone always has a sense of accomplishment when they "beat" something that is challenging them. Sometimes we miss the simply ways to help children learn. online casino

joe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great article about the "realities" of, not only math, but any real problem we all encounter both in and out of school. Most difficult problems do not have easy answers and the frustration and struggle is a part of the solution.

I have observed in hundreds of classrooms over the past 47+ years in my career. I have often seen "learned helplessness" displayed by many students who have been enabled by teachers who seem to do "all of the work" in the learning process. Not much is to be gained when students rely heavily on the "teacher doing all of the work." This does not mean we abandoned direct instruction, checking for understanding or guided practice. It means giving students the necessary skills to be able to work through their frustrations and struggles.

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