Who Gets to Be Good at Math?


Being good at math — like writing — has often been attributed to innate skill. But how often do expectations factor into student achievement and test results? And what can be done to combat negative expectations in the classroom?

In a new article published in Mathematics Teacher, Professor Marla Sole (Guttman Community College) highlights four key areas where teachers can potentially help improve their students’ math ability: “negative stereotypes, mindsets, participation, and problem-solving strategies.”

Sole reviews the research surrounding each category, and offers practical pedagogical methods to improve students’ performance. Sole writes, “I hope to help teachers ignite students’ enthusiasm for mathematics, increase students’ self-confidence, and empower all students to achieve to the best of their abilities.”

Negative stereotypes — like stereotype threat, or the idea that one is being judged based on stereotypes — can reinforce ideas about who is good at math. Counteracting them is critical. “Research on stereotype threat examined the impact of interventions to nullify negative stereotypes immediately before taking a test,” Sole writes.

More than just combatting stereotypes, though, encouraging students by employing a growth mindset is equally important. Growth mindsets advocate that applying oneself to a task will improve future performance. That, combined with classroom participation from all students — rather than a select few — can help create a more unbiased and positive atmosphere.

Lastly, Sole underscores the importance of understanding each student’s preferred learning style, and adjusting assignments to help them. For example, if a student has difficulty processing information quickly, open-ended math questions may be one solution. In fact, Sole previously wrote about the importance of open-ended questions in the classroom.

Sole concludes, “By making modest changes teachers can help create a more equitable environment that clearly expresses their belief that all students can excel in mathematics.”

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Who Can Excel in Mathematics?
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2019

Work By

Marla Sole (Assistant Professor, Mathematics) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

Guttman Community College