Helping Struggling Students Build a Mathematical Mindset

by Sue Chapman, Professional Learning Specialist
March 03rd, 2017

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Recent research on mathematical mindsets is turning some long-standing beliefs about mathematics learning on their heads. These studies have important implications for classroom teachers and mathematics coaches.

What do we want our students to know about mathematical mindsets? Here are three big ideas I recommend discussing, modeling, and cultivating in any mathematics learning setting:

  • Everyone can learn math. Research has conclusively disproved the myth that only some people are good at math.
  • Understanding mathematics is a process not accomplished all at one. Adult mathematicians sometimes work for years to solve a single mathematical problem.
  • Mistakes are a normal and needed part of learning. Getting stuck on a problem and then figuring out how to get unstuck is fun and an important life skill.

In his book Solving for Why: Understanding, Assessing, and Teaching Students Who Struggle with Math, John Tapper talks about ways of helping students with math anxiety. Tapper suggests that teachers ask these students to write down statements that show how they feel about math:

Math is my worst subject.

I’ve never been smart at math.

When I can’t find an answer I feel like I want to disappear.

Next, help students to rewrite these statement framed in a growth mindset terms:

Math doesn’t have to be my worst subject. I can do better. I’ve had other experiences where I’ve improved and math could be like one of those.

Maybe I’ve never felt smart at math because I’ve never found a way to like it. If I can find things I like about it, I might do better.

I don’t need to let how I do at math be so important. If I relax about it, maybe I will improve. (p. 143)

How might you use this idea of writing growth mindset statements as part of your RtI process or in a teacher professional learning cycle?

What might you learn from using this process that would benefit not only the students you work with today, but also build your instructional toolkit and deepen your understanding of the impact of mindset on learning?

Please share your thoughts and your stories in the comments.


Sue Chapman, Professional Learning Specialist Math Solutions

Sue Chapman is a professional educator, presenter, and author who has devoted over 30 years to instructional improvement and mathematics education. Throughout her career, Sue has served and taught in several different areas of professional education, including instructional and leadership positions.

Sue has a B.S. in Early Childhood Education, a M.S. in Elementary Education, and an Ed. D. in Educational Leadership. Sue started her career as an Elementary Math Teacher in 1976, later serving as a Mathematics Coach, Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator, and School Administrator. She currently serves the educational community as a Math Solutions Professional Learning Specialist, Learning Forward Texas Board Member, and adjunct faculty member at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.

Sue’s passion for professional learning and her ability to inspire teachers to come together around a shared vision of success have been instrumental in helping schools and districts develop systems and internal capacity to achieve continuous improvement of mathematics instruction.


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