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
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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Debra B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Read Daniel Willingham's book Why Students Hate School. From a behavioral psychologist's perspective, he explains how most school is either too easy or too hard for kids and talks about the satisfaction of struggling with and solving a difficult problem. If more of education allowed for this, students would be much happier (and smarter).

Trinetta Peeples's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Trinetta Peeples and I am a graduate student with Walden University. This article really gave me a lot to think about! I teach 6th grade Language Arts and think that the same concepts could be applied to Language Arts as well as math. The key ingredient seems to be time which most educators will agree that we just don't seem to have enough of on a day to day basis. But the Rutgers method could prove useful in all content areas if instructors/educators have the amount of time required for students to either solve problems or practice a key concept or further study a difficult grammar concept.

Group collaboration is also key to the Rutgers method which is quite hard to accomplish in the 6th grade classroom environment. Students seem to understand much better when they are allowed to discuss topics and get ideas from their peers.

I hate to see frustration on a student's face and will hastily jump in to help them answer the question or solve the problem. The Rutgers method will not allow me to do this and I will have to suppress that urge and allow the frustration to push the student to achieve understanding about a key concept on their own - without my assistance. Great article!

Lauren Raymond's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is very interesting. I'm wondering where you draw the line for frustration? Some kids who get frustrated shut down and won't try anymore because it is too hard. How do you keep kids frustrated but engaged?

TDUD's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What about students that have such math anxiety that they "shut-down" once they feel the slightest chanllenge, or just see a # and it puts them in a bad place?

Amy Nelson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"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."

This is something I have been working on recently in my classroom. Giving students the opportunity to "make sense" of math concepts, problems, etc. in a way that makes sense to them. I haven't done a lot with the problem-solving mentioned above, but have used these options in reflection activities. Students draw pictures, write a poem/song, write a reflection, etc. so they are able to "process" the information in a way that makes sense to them. Problem-solving is coming.. I will spend time teaching students the problem-solving strategies and then give them the option to use which works best for them and the given situation to solve the problem.

Richard Hicks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a class of "gifted" 7th grade algebra students. This is also quite true on the other end of the spectrum. These students have rarely struggled in their past educational (or other) experiences. The most difficult (and important and rewarding) task is to get them accustomed to struggling,as well. I believe the phenomenon is true across the board.

Jaime Passchier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to be giving kids the "good struggle" so that they may come to a deeper understanding on their own. However, I also believe that as teachers we need to provide that careful balance between the amount of support we give and the amount of struggle we give. We should hold all students to a high expectation, but at the same time, we need to support students who will need scaffolding to get there.

Lilette Wheatman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe as long as we provide students with a safe and nurturing learning environment they will be willing to take risks. It all comes down to expectations. If we have high expectations for students they will work hard to meet the expectations. We also have to make sure that we do not set the expectations too high because we do not want to frustrate them. It is important to know our students and what they are capable of doing so we can adjust our instructions to meet their needs.

jamie's picture

Students of today are a product of electronics and the Internet. Their strengths and skills are greatly computer based and it is for this reason that I wholly support the author's claim that technology needs to be a part of the classroom. While I do support the claim, two concerns on the issue arise that I feel the author fails to address. When introducing technology into the classroom, it needs to be a gradual process. Students not only need to be taught how to use the technology properly, but also need to know what is going on within the technology that allows it to serve its educational purpose. In the article it talks about a drastic two year switch from paper to strictly electronic methods in the classroom, and this to me is just too drastic of a change. There is no way that within two years time students can learn both how to use new technology fully as well as understand what it is doing as well. This lack of knowledge on the "how it works" of technology leads to a second concern I have, that students will become overly reliant on technology in order to succeed if technology is not properly taught and used. Specific to the math classroom, I would like to use the excessive use of calculators and neglect on emphasis on mental math within the classroom as an example of my claim. Yes, graphing calculators or calculators in general are there as a tool to support student learning by assisting them with calculations, but they are there to CHECK mental math, not replace it. Too often I am finding students who reach for their calculators to do simple multiplication or integer subtraction in the classroom and I simply ask, what happens when the batteries die? Students who are unaware of the calculations that are being done within the calculator itself are now left without the necessary knowledge to succeed. Technology is beneficial for students because it allows them to see information and experiment with information in new and exciting ways, but it needs to be understood that technology is just another resource for a teacher to use to enhance overall learning, it is not the only resource!

Karen Ponce's picture
Karen Ponce
West New York, New Jersey

"What doesn't hurt you makes you stronger"

I could not help but think about this when I first starting reading this. This idea about allowing students to struggle with challenging math problems and them succeeding in math is so great. Anyone who is able to struggle with something and then sees the solution, in the end it is a remarkable feeling. The pride they feel just fuels their interest in math and makes them working harder.
I believe seeing your role, as that of guide is important. Math is about practice and working on a problem and figuring out how to solve it. I do not believe a math teacher should stand up in front of the class the whole time to show students how to solve a problem and not allow them enough time to feel it out and practice to make mistakes and learn from them.
One of the ideas that stuck out in my head was when you said "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." It is very important to allow students to learn in their own way. No one person drinks their coffee the same or sleeps the same or dresses the same. We are a society that allows a lot of different approaches to many different things so why not learning. We do not all learn the same. The activity where the students got together to talk about the different ways they solved the problem was nice to see. The students after getting together can see all the different approaches and can decide the best strategy. This is also important because it creates an open mind for them and they are able to see the problem in different ways. Giving this opportunity to students gives them a sense of power and they will become much more focused and engaged from the lesson. It is a much better alternative than standing in front of the class and telling them the way they should solve a problem. As the study showed, students did show more interest in math and that is remarkable. There are so many students in classrooms right now wishing the bell would ring for the "torture to be over. For a while I was one of those students until I had a teacher that cared and now I am working towards a mathematics masters.
Motivation is the key aspect in this and it is the key aspect in mostly everything else we do. As long as the classroom is a safe place for them to make mistakes and get a little frustrated, they will then come out of it with a sense of achievement.

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