George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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?

Was this useful? (1)

Comments (50) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Well said regarding school math vs math math. Here is what Conrad Wolfram confirmed about your opinion and mine (after teaching math for 10 years). Conrad Wolfram: Teaching kids real math with computers TED Talks & free software mathematics:

Jimmy Rogers's picture

Your blog was very thought-provoking! I had previously learned that students have greater success in mastering mathematical concepts when they are related to real-life situations. I also already try to incorporate as many hands-on activities as I can to utilize more of the right brain, but I had never thought of the idea of incorporating the re-testing as a means of reducing the stress placed on the student to learn just for the purpose of earning a specific grade. I can see how re-testing would help the student not only learn the skills but own them so that transference of those skills would occur more easily. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

I appreciate the responses and through-provoking discussions. Below is an example of a "test correction sheet" I used for 5th grade grammar tests. These forms are completed by students after tests are returned are are their "ticket" to take the retest. In that way even preparing for the retest is a metacognitive experience

Grammar Test Corrections Grade 5
Teacher: Judy Willis, M.D.

Please complete the responses to the first 5 sections for each question missed.

Question I missed: Write the question number and copy the question itself: Name of textbook or worksheet and pages I can go to find information about this question

The correct answer to this question is? ________________________________________
Explain in detail why that is the correct answer. How did you decide that your new answer is correct?

What could you have studied to be more prepared for this question?

What will you do differently to be more successful in the future?

What success are you proud regarding your learning in this topic (either on the test or in other work you did to demonstrate your understanding?

Rita Smilkstein's picture

Just want to add one thing to Judy Willis' excellent blog. The one most effective method for engaging, motivating, and helping students be successful learners is to ask them, "See if you can figure this out." This is what the brain is born to do: to figure things out. The brain is the organ that makes it possible for to survive and thrive. Figuring things out is what it must do and wants to do, is innately motivated to do. However, what students are asked to figure out needs to be close to what they already know, what is already in their brains. Then they can use what they know to figure it out. This is constructivism or, as some name it, scaffolding. They have something in their brain, some neural network, upon which to grow/construct/connect/scaffold the new knowlege or skill. However, if the students don't have prior foundational, prerequisite knowledge or skill (which is in the brain as a neural network), then the first task for a new topic must be a no-fail task that every student can figure out so every student can make that essential connection, so every student can start growing the neural network for the new knowledge and skill. For example, to introduce fractions to math novices, give students two pieces of paper and ask them to tear one of them in two equal pieces, lay them on the other piece of paper and ask the students to figure out how they would tell someone else what one of the pieces is. They should do this individually, then share with a few others, which will stimulate their brains. Then the teacher can ask them what they all came up with, what they all figured out. They will be talking about fractions. After repeating this with other sheets of paper to be torn into four equal pieces and, after that, into six equal pieces, each time individually, in small groups, and as a whole class. After the students have become comfortable with talking fractions, without knowing that this is what they are called, then the teacher can finally say, "These pieces are called 'fractions,' which means 'parts of the whole' and can show them how to write fractions. Terminology is a killer and will be in rote nowhere-land if it is introduced before students know what the terminology is about. When they do know what it is about, they can say, "Oh, ok, that's what this is." Now they will totally understand, be delighted, and can write up different fractions for others to figure out in a fraction game. (Created by Joanne Rawley, St. Petersburg, FL, Community College, at one of my workshops). This lesson has been used successfully from elementary school to developmental math courses at community colleges. Try it and see! Check my website .

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

'See if you can figure this out.' is so much more engaging than 'Sit down, shut up, listen, and learn.' Engaging the students, letting them play with the idea, letting them try to do it, letting them talk about it, letting them try to teach each other, teaching them how to learn, turning them on to learning - these are all characteristics of student-centered learning.

My blog.

Rita's site.

Jen's picture
High School Math Teacher, Minnesota

I love your comments about re-testing; it's something I have done with my students for as long as I've been teaching. The students (and parents) seem to appreciate the opportunity to improve scores and understanding.
My biggest obstacle has been the negative thoughts and attitudes portrayed by parents. Every year I hear "I was never any good at math" or "I'm bad at math" from the parents - as if it is an excuse for the low grade their child has earned, or that MATH is an inherited skill. While some recent research has shown that number sense may be linked to our family tree - effort and attitude can be self controlled. It's frustrating to put the time into getting parents involved only for them to make excuses for the kids.

irishgal1288's picture
Special education teacher.

"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." I work in a self-contained emotional behavior classroom and this happens often. Parents get frustrated with students early on when they can't do their homework and expect them to be able to do the homework themselves. This is often because the parents feel the student should know the content if they were paying attention or because the parent can't help them due to lack of knowledge. I like the idea of having a conference with the parents and giving them resources while outlining your expectations for the class.

Abby Mae's picture

How do you handle the comments from parents that imply math is an inherited skill? I agree that effort and attitude are self-controlled and that the math skills of students are relatively independent from their parents skills. How do you address the comments from parents that make excuses for the students? Any tips?

Lisa J's picture

You make many valid points. Retests are a great way to allow students to demonstrate mastery, it also shows your belief in their abilities. When mastery is the goal, averaging marks is not necessary. If you fail your first driver's test, and pass on your second attempt, your test scores are not averaged, since you demonstrated mastery on your second test.

Martin Diaz Alvarez's picture
Martin Diaz Alvarez
Martin Diaz Alvarez EDU Profile Page

Demonstrating values always work on my kids. It will be very boring to think math as just numbers.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.