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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

Brittney L.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This method is so different from what I experienced in math classes growing up. I think that by allowing students to work in a problem-solving setting more frequently, students become accustomed to doing math for a reason, instead of looking simply for the correct answer from the teacher. While it may take training and practice for an educator to implement this technique successfully, it seems to be worth the extra effort!

Michael Heath's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Merrie,

I am interested in this concept you were speaking of regarding Piaget and his idea of disequilibrium as applied to this type of learing environment.

Michael Heath's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stevi I love the way that you are articulating the learning environment which I have in my room that I found describable until now. This type of environment maxes out students' proficiency levels.

Angela 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is great that this strategy improved math for this school but in return the language arts decreased which is a down side. I like that the students found new ways that worked for their problems I think that it makes a classroom come together more when they have to fail to succeed. I know that being taught different strategies would have been helpfull for me when I was in school.

Terry Harvey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like and agree with the way this Rutgers University program are going about this whole learning math by letting "youngsters get frustrated by math". I personally think this works well, I feel that becoming frustrated makes the math more of a challenge and me being competitive makes me want to do whatever I can to learn it. But it also goes so far that for those students who might not be competitive like me they are in an environment that doesn't push them too far with frustration.

Also, the teachers are using the think pair share strategy in this program. Allowing the students to think alone on how they will solve it. Then give them a chance at social interaction which helps learning, which gives them the chance to either confirm their method they used , learn another way it is done, or teach another student. Then after they are done they can pick one of their ways and show the rest of the class. A simple strategy that tends to work.

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These statistics are inspiring! It has always seemed not only foolish, but dangerous, to think that we have to spoon-feed homogenized education to children, and that some are innately incapable of true comprehension. Are we not setting up a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy? These new approaches indicate a shift in how we define "successfully teaching" students: now allowing them to discover truths themselves. Working in groups emphasizes students communicating their rationalizations, stimulating higher thinking, and requires students to discover their own methods for finding answers: skills essential to personal and social success. Manipulatives, student-produced visual representations of mathematics concepts, and increased problem-solving skill applications, are all steps in the right direction it seems. My one question concerning the disconcerting language arts scores is whether the same methods were being applied in those classrooms as in the mathematics instruction. Perhaps it is not the curriculum but the instruction that made all the difference in results? I do believe that using frustration, as with any method, should be a cautious endeavor, and the best strategy for each student, is unique as they are.

Maci's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never experienced anything like this method in any class. I think it is very beneficial to the learning process to allow students to think and work on problems on their own in the way that works the best for them before they are instructed. The research shows that the math scores in these schools went up. However, it is still hard for me to understand how frustration is going to increase a students' interest level in math. This method is definitely worth a try!

Maci's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never experienced anything like this method in any class. I think it is very beneficial to the learning process to allow students to think and work on their own in the way that works the best for them before they are instructed. The research shows that the math scores in these schools went up. However, it is still hard for me to understand how frustration is going to increase a students' interest level in math. This method is definitely worth a try!

Stephanie A's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought this artical was very interesting in seeing how well this type of method, think-pair-share, really works within the classroom. I first see it in our classroom and enjoy it, but to see the statistics of how well it is actually working within a classroom is helping me see that this truly is a benifical method. Although I am very concerned about the language arts scores and how they have either slipped or stayed the same. If I was to impliment this within my classroom I might incorporate writing within the assignment and ask the students to write down how they solved the equation while they are in the think process.

Stephanie A's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought this artical was very interesting in seeing how well this type of method, think-pair-share, really works within the classroom. I first see it in our classroom and enjoy it, but to see the statistics of how well it is actually working within a classroom is helping me see that this truly is a benifical method. Although I am very concerned about the language arts scores. If I was to empliment this within my classroom I might incorporate writting within the assignment and ask the students to write down how they solved the equation while they are in the think process.

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