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How to build secondary students’ confidence in mathematics

Maths in secondary school can be a point of stress and self-doubt for many. Through their pedagogy, language and actions teachers can foster students’ confidence in their own maths abilities.
confidence in mathematics

Student achievement in mathematics is linked to several factors. Notable amongst these is their confidence in mathematics.

Case in point: A Ministry of Education (2015) publication. It found 15-year-old students’ mathematics progress was associated with their own beliefs about their maths ability, confidence to tackle maths problems and maths anxiety. Differences in these factors meant students could be one-and-half to two years ahead or behind in maths.

Let’s park looking at confidence in maths for just a second.

Secondary school mathematics learning is incredibly empowering. Students benefit from improved numeracy skills – their ability to understand and use maths – because they have more options for study and employment.

Numeracy is crucial for students to engage with the increasingly complex tasks they encounter as they progress through school.

Outside the classroom, mathematics is required in most careers – accounting, nursing and various trades. Those with strong mathematical and analytical skills will command a premium in future economies.

So, we know mathematical understanding is important. It then follows that confidence in mathematics is crucial too as this affects students’ ability to progress in the subject.

Why is confidence in mathematics important?

Motivation and engagement are often used interchangeably. However, they are different.

Motivation refers to the ways a student chooses to behave, their confidence in their abilities and their ability to overcome challenges. A student’s motivation determines whether they will engage (Attard, 2012).

Here we see how students’ confidence in their maths ability affects their motivation and, in turn, their engagement.

According to the Ministry of Education (2015), students with more mathematics exposure and practice tend to achieve higher levels of success. Sometimes up to two years ahead!

It becomes obvious to see that a number of interrelated factors affect mathematic achievement. A change in one (i.e. confidence in mathematics) is likely to bring a change in another (i.e. engagement in mathematics).

confident girl doing maths

What are some ideas for building confidence and engaging students in secondary mathematics?

Open-ended problem-solving

Open-ended maths problem-solving questions – like those seen in our secondary mathematics teaching resources – are a great way to build confidence.

As explained in our previous blog, open-ended problems can be solved in more than one way and have multiple answers. In these sorts of problems, being successful can range from finding one possible solution to finding and explaining every possible solution.

All students can be “right” which removes the fear-of-failing barrier. This leads nicely to the next way to build confidence in mathematics, understanding the value of mistakes.

The value of mistakes

Mistakes are part of the learning experience, as noted by Boaler (2016, p.11):

The brain grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged, and this is the time the brain grows most.

However, the fear of making mistakes is a significant obstacle for students.

Teachers should adopt a “constructive attitude to their student’s mistakes” and foster analysis and discussion of mistakes for mathematical development.

This can be done through:

  • placing students in situations where they feel in control of identifying mathematical errors (such as exploring the answers of an unknown student)
  • using teacher/pupil and pupil/pupil talk to address errors and make connections (Boaler, 2016).

Above all, the classroom culture must reward students for having the courage to test their mathematical ideas.

Learner agency

Fostering learner agency also helps to build confidence through maths in secondary school. Students feel empowered when they have a level of control and choice over their learning.

Flipped learning is one approach to give learner agency. Teachers act more like facilitators while students create and answer their own questions. This allows students to be more active in their own knowledge construction.

SOLO Taxonomy is another way. Pam Hook has described SOLO Taxonomy as a “practical way to put the learner right at the centre of the learning process.” It allows both students and teachers to monitor learning outcomes and work together to develop next steps.

SOLO Taxonomy in Mathematics is a great mathematics resources for secondary school teachers. It shows how the SOLO approach is used across mathematical learning areas – algebra, fractions, geometry, measurement, statistics and problem-solving.

student confidence in mathematics

Teacher expectations

Teacher expectations have an impact on shaping students’ confidence in maths in secondary school.

It is worth noting:

  • girls have lower confidence in their maths abilities and higher maths anxiety
  • girls rely on teacher perceptions to a greater extent than boys.

Teachers play a vital role in boosting girls’ confidence, in particular. Teacher language needs to be both supportive and motivating. For example:

  • language of success – “I know you can do it”
  • language of hope – “You can do it and what help do you need to do it?”
  • language of possibility – “Yes, you did get a bit mixed up, but let’s see which bit is causing you problems.”

Mathematics in secondary school can be overwhelming for many students. Even more so for those who enter the classroom already believing “I am no good at maths.”

When these approaches are combined with continued mathematical practice, bit by bit, you can build students’ confidence in mathematics.

References

Attard, C. (2012). Engagement with mathematics: What does it mean and what does it look like? Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 17(1), 9–13.

Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Ministry of Education. (2015). Insights for Teachers: New Zealand student self-belief and confidence, and implications for achievement.

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