Teaching Strategies

3 Phrases That Can Demotivate Students in Math Class

Seemingly innocuous statements can exacerbate math anxiety among learners—and avoiding these phrases can help all students see themselves as “math people.”

December 15, 2020
Cavan Images / Alamy

One story I love to share with my own students is the fact that I hated math when I was in middle school. They’re always surprised to hear that their math teacher didn’t always love the subject. I explain to them that the main thing I didn’t like about the subject was that my teacher made me feel like I was bad at it. Luckily, I had enough amazing math teachers who taught me to love the subject and to believe in my own ability to be successful.

As a math teacher, I have been in many classrooms and heard teachers say some of the things that almost stopped me from loving the subject all those years ago. It’s imperative that we as teachers hold one another accountable for what we say to students, so I want to encourage my colleagues to avoid these phrases in the classroom.

1. This Is So Easy!

Many students decide from a young age that they just “aren’t math people” and carry that sentiment with them throughout their educational journey. Imagine being one of these students, sitting in a class in which you have never felt confident, and your teacher tells the class how easy the problem or topic of that day is. When we as teachers say this, we are forcing students who are struggling to internalize these negative views of themselves and their abilities. By calling something “easy,” we devalue the experience of those students who find it difficult and create a space that does not welcome their struggle or their questions. If I were this student, I would be scared and uncomfortable to ask a question or ask for help after being told that something was “easy.”

As teachers, and math teachers specifically, we have a responsibility to create spaces that allow students to make mistakes, to question everything, and to learn to fall in love with discovering the solutions to problems. We cannot create such spaces when we convince students that they are already too far behind when all the content is “easy.”

2. You’re So Smart!

Positive praise is a huge part of my approach to teaching and classroom management. But such praise should be for specific, replicable behaviors and not for intelligence. When a student who feels like they aren’t a math person hears another student being praised for being “so smart,” it only reinforces the negative attitude that they have toward math class and themselves. It reinforces a student’s belief that some kids are just smarter than others when it comes to math. This is not only false but a destructive sentiment to embed in our classrooms.

Rather than praising students for their intelligence, praise them for their hard work, their determination, their attention to detail, their communication skills, their ability to work with others, their use of academic language, and their courage in taking academic risks. When considering how to offer praise in the classroom, make sure that whatever you are praising is something that any student in the room feels capable of replicating.

3. You Should Already Know This!

One thing that I, and many other math teachers, have struggled with when teaching math is how to address grade-level content when students have gaps in their fundamental skills. Math is so heavily based on extending basic skills to more and more advanced topics that it can feel challenging for students to get better if they have struggled in the past. Saying something like “You should already know this” to a group of students not only potentially reaffirms a student’s thought that they will never be good at math but also places blame on students for something that may not be their fault. A past year’s teacher may not have covered something adequately, or a student may need additional remediation. By the time they reach your class, they likely know that they are behind with the content and do not need to have their self-confidence further hindered by such a statement.

All teachers have a responsibility to support their students and help them develop a love for learning. Math teachers take on the even greater responsibility of teaching students to believe in themselves as they tackle the content. The way we speak to our students has an immense impact, and small changes to what we say can make that impact a positive one.

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