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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

Marguerite Kopiec's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are several variables in this experiment. I believe that the researchers mistakenly attribute the result of the experiment exclusively to <>. Much more powerful motivational and structuring factors present were the following:
extra attention given to these students;
nurturing environment;
structured learning,
and above all: cooperative learning techniques.
You could teach them Mandarin or chemistry using these measures and obtain the same results. Math was only the context.

Stevi Quate's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I so agree with this article. In the research my co-writer, John McDermott, and I did for our book Clock Watchers, we kept seeing over and over how challenge was vital for students to be both motivated and engaged as long as students were in a nurturing environment. Work that's too easy bores them while work that's too tough -- or work that isn't supported -- frustrates them. Csikszentmihalyi has a great chart in his book Flow on page 74 that shows the importance of challenge.

Along with challenge, students need to be in a caring classroom environment, to work collaboratively, to have ongoing feedback, and to have their work celebrated. It's a complex process and requires close attention to the culture of the classroom.

Dr. Bequette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Puzzlement and increased learning is nothing new . . . Piaget coined the term "disequilibrium" to mean a state of imbalance when new learning does not fit into a learner's existing schema. Students may grapple with a problem until reaching a solution, thus influencing their future learning. It is wonderful to have new research supporting his theories . . .

M. Munch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great article. Basically it boils down to this:
In order to learn how to think, you have *practice thinking*. And when you get the brain's gears turning, it can feel pretty great!

Martin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the refresher, doc!

Jessica Comisford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a second grade teacher, trying to integrate this method of teaching math causes me to struggle! However, I believe the struggle is worth the effort and discomfort. I want my students to believe it is worth it also. I want them to know that grappling with a problem, of any sort, is okay...and exciting!
I look forward to reading research on the management strategies that target students as individuals. I worry about this too. However I feel that I have a more authentic understanding of what my students know now more than ever because I know WHY and HOW they know what they do. I feel more confident with addressing their mathmatical issues becuase of the conversations I am having with the students as they "struggle". I didn't have this confidence when using more traditional methods.
Adapting this way of teaching is so important despite how it makes us feel!

Meneta Deaton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As we as teachers struggle and feel that dissonance or disequilibrium, we will also have the greatest opportunity for learning to occur! Recognizing that path from struggle to success in ourselves will help us to help our students on this path as well.

Merrie Skaggs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article reinforces many of the concepts my students are learning right now in their math methods course. My first reaction was to think of Piaget and his idea of disequilibrium. (Others had the same thought.) I look forward to reading what my 2:00 TR math community members have to say about this article.

Kate's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that some students enjoy a challenge and learn better by struggling with a problem. I think it's great when students have the drive to figure out a difficult problem instead of simply giving up. Although some students find a difficult problem to be exciting, others may become extremely frustrated and quit trying. All in all, different strategies work for different students. I think that this strategy would benefit some students, but not all. Either way, this is an interesting strategy to consider.

Rachel N.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This research allows the students to be motivated about thinking and solving problems. The frustrations produce a will to finish the problem or understanding of the problem. I would agree that this is a good strategy in which some students learn but would not consider it the best way. Hands on manipulatives as well as written communication are other great strategies to help the individual learners. However, I would definitely like to observe this strategy in action.

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