Teachers to Students: Want to Do Better in Math? Pay Attention in Class and Ask for Help

Teachers to Students: Want to Do Better in Math? Pay Attention in Class and Ask for Help 

The biggest hurdles math teachers see for high school students to succeed in math is their lack of confidence and inability to work at it, mentioned by two-thirds of instructors (65 percent) in a recent survey of 400-plus educators teaching the subject. That's followed by an inadequate foundation in math knowledge from previous years, reported by 52 percent of teachers; and a tendency for students to believe they need to memorize formulas rather than try to understand math concepts, referenced by half.

The survey was given to math teachers who coached teams that participated in this year's MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national Internet-based contest organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

The survey found that students are more likely to excel in math if they work hard to understand math concepts and when to apply them, reported by three-quarters of respondents. The most important elements for succeeding with math are twofold: to pay attention in class and ask for explanations when something isn't clear, advised by two-thirds of teachers (66 percent); and to get help -- whether from a teacher, parent or classmate, suggested by 52 percent. Four in 10 teachers (42 percent) said students would perform better if they worked in a quiet place, "free of technology and distractions."

To help their students gain an interest and understanding in math, four in five math teachers try to use real-world problems in class. Nearly half (49 percent) noted that a good way to increase student interest was to build their confidence by starting at a level of math "slightly below their potential" and letting them work up from there. Just a third (33 percent) try math games or hold in-class contests or challenges (32 percent) to boost interest.

"Contrary to public opinion, the results of the survey demonstrate that success in math is not based on nature, but rather, an aptitude for math can be nurtured with effort, motivation and self-assurance," said Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at the society, in a prepared statement. The results, she added, "reinforce the importance of making math relevant to everyday life as a foundation to increase students' desire to learn."

Each year the national competition challenges thousands of high school juniors and seniors to commit 14 consecutive hours in March to come up with a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling. The problem given to this year's finalists: to create a mathematical model to help a state (in this case, Texas) figure out how share food waste with people who don't have enough.

This year's event draw participation from 4,175 students working in 913 teams. Professional mathematicians chose six winning teams -- from Lincolnshire, IL; Lincroft, NJ; Los Altos, CA; Middlebury, VT; Osprey, FL; and Waxhaw, NC -- to participate in a final event in New York City at the end of this month. Each winning team will take home scholarship money.

MathWorks, the sponsor of the contest, produces mathematical computing software. Its flagship product, MATLAB, is a programming environment for developing algorithms, doing data analysis, numeric computation and visualization.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.