Building Confidence In Math Class

student raising his hand in math class

Photography by Ta-Duc

Updated September 9, 2020

When I ran for school board, one question was asked a number of times, usually by students. “How would I provide more teacher/student interactions?” I assumed the students wanted a more personal experience in their learning until a BBC News article made me realize that this question might include a lot more. In the article I read, “Secondary school pupils are so scared of looking stupid in maths lessons they will not tell their teachers if they do not understand, suggests research.” It continued, “The reasons pupils gave for not asking for help more often were that they were worried about looking foolish, were embarrassed or did not want to draw attention to themselves.” In other words, they lacked confidence.

Besides instructors spending more one-on-one time with their students, are there other ways to build a student’s confidence in math? Yes…

Ways to build confidence

Hiring a good tutor helps. But not every family can afford a tutor, and it takes some effort to find a good one.

Games can make math fun, which in turn can increase skills and build confidence. I read about a mother who believed Khan Academy would make math fun for her son. She thought he would find the points system and accumulation of badges motivating. She was right! “Before he knew it, an hour had passed and he was still interested in the exercises. More importantly, he was not getting frustrated if he got something wrong like he does in class or during homework. He wanted those points and, by golly, he was going to get them.”

Though we don’t have a points system or badges, Elevated Math not only builds math skills, but also solidifies an understanding of critical math concepts.  More skills?  A better understanding? How can this not increase confidence? And though we love what Elevated Math and Khan Academy are accomplishing, nothing can replace an instructor or parent who recognizes a student or child’s strengths and nurtures him/her through his/her weaknesses. So the question becomes, how do we free up time so we can spend more individual time with students? This is a question we each have to answer on our own.

Another angle for building confidence – flipped classrooms

I talked to a mother who was looking for a school for her daughter. One private girls’ school she visited explained that the school had flipped all their math classes. “Flipped classroom” means that instead of lectures taking place during school time, they are sent home by “screencasts”, where the instructor has pre-recorded the lesson, or by assigning a video to watch, such as from Khan Academy or Elevated Math. “Homework” or problem-solving happens in the classroom. “Flipped classrooms” have proved quite successful since the instructor is available to answer questions and help the students with the problems.

“Of course,” I responded knowingly. “This produces higher achievement.”

“No,” the mother answered. Her answer was a surprise.  She explained the school had flipped the math classes because the math teachers found they were not completing their lessons during class time. Why?  Because the girls were constantly raising their hands and asking questions.  The flipped classroom became a viable solution for this school to get important instruction to the students. So class time was used to solve problems and the teacher answered the students questions.

If you ever visit a typical middle school co-ed classroom, you might notice boys usually are more assertive when it comes to asking and answering questions, and girls more likely refrain from asking questions.  This particular girls’ school prided itself in letting their students express themselves in class.  As a result, the girls exuded more than enough confidence – if that’s at all possible!

Do the genders have that much disparity?

Actually, no. In her book “Inferior,” (published last month), Angela Saini writes, “In every case, except for throwing distance and vertical jumping, females are less than one standard deviation apart from males.

On many measures, they are less than a tenth apart of a standard deviation, which is indistinguishable in everyday life.” For example, “mathematics problem solving” for men showed an increase of only a 0.08 standard deviation. Interestingly, with “mathematics concepts” women out-performed men by 0.03 standard deviations. Men had more self-esteem by a range of 0.04 to 0.21 standard deviations, which increased through adolescence. However, the likelihood of men making more “intrusive interruptions” measured 0.33 standard deviations.

The differences may be interesting, but they are also very small.

Flipped classrooms will help build confidence, but it has nothing to do with gender. If students don’t get the instructional video with the first viewing, they can review the video again. Or they can ask a friend to explain it. Or show the video to their parents for help. If none of these steps explain the concept, students can confidently go back into class the next day knowing that the problem lies not in their lack of understanding but in their teacher’s explanation.

One last thought – an important one

These days are difficult for parents and math instructors. With virtual or online learning shoved into many homes, and teacher job satisfaction and wages low (which they have always been), our educational system is in crisis mode. Yet, more than ever, instructors and parents need to project their own confidence onto their students, which means they have to find confidence in themselves. This requires work – is a struggle. We need to embrace this situation, be willing to make mistakes, try new ways, and aggressively fight our fear. It’s not enough to just stay positive. We need to acknowledge the progress – even if a little – that we see in our students.

This all comes back to the need to work as much as possible one-on-one with students. More teacher/parent/student interaction is a solution that will certainly help.

2 thoughts on “Building Confidence In Math Class”

  1. Excellent suggestions! And lovely that you pointed out that the research is supporting this.

    We’ve also found that parents noticing and saying math out loud is very helpful in calming children’s nerves.

    And parents don’t even have to like math or even be good at it. They just have to say the words out loud!

    “Look, we got home ten minutes early. That’s math!”

    “I’m getting better gas mileage this week. Hey – I used math to figure that out!”

    “Two of our tomato plants died. I’m going out to buy another two to replace them. You know – that’s actually math!”

    Thanks so much for writing this, Robin!

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