Careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are on the rise, and are vital for modern society. For most STEM careers, for example computer programming, students must complete a substantial amount of math coursework. Unfortunately, many students who have the potential to have successful and fulfilling careers in STEM opt out due to negative feelings towards mathematics.

According to the latest report from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), 19% percent of 4th grade students report that they do not like math and the figure even doubles to 38% in 8th grade students. In comparison, 11% of 4th grade students report that they do not like science, increasing to 19% in 8th grade students. It is unclear whether the increase in dislike of science is partly due to the negative attitudes towards math.

What could account for the dramatic increase in negative attitudes towards math from 4th to 8th grade? Well, there are multiple possible contributing factors. It could simply be that math becomes more advanced during that time. Students go from learning concrete topics such as arithmetic to more abstract topics like algebra. But it seems that more subtle forces might be at play as well.

“It is a common belief that math is the subject of the gifted. That you either have the talent for math or you do not.”

In many western countries, it is a common belief that math is the subject of the gifted. That you either have the talent for math or you do not. Such an attitude could be gravely detrimental to students’ motivation. We don’t seem to have the same attitude about literacy or writing. Most think that all students are capable of reaching some level of competence in literacy and writing, but for some reason we think that math is a special case, either you get it or you don’t.

In addition, between childhood and adolescence, students tend to have increasing math anxiety. Math anxiety is the fear, tension, worry, or dread specifically occurring in math contexts. Although the source of math anxiety is unclear, we know it is related to negative attitudes towards math as well as lower performance and achievement in math. Meaning that, math anxiety and negative attitudes negatively impact success in math.

What’s more, recent studies have found that parent and teacher anxiety and attitudes towards math can have a direct influence on student attitudes and achievement towards the subject.

“Math anxiety and negative attitudes negatively impact success in math.”

In my opinion, one of the primary actions we must take to increase student achievement in math and participation in STEM is to focus on creating a more positive climate towards the subject. To do so, below are some suggestions for teachers and parents. It is most important to be aware of our own feelings and biases towards math and the messages we send to students and children about the subject and their potential for mathematical success.

Let us work together to create a more positive culture surrounding mathematics!

  • Do NOT present math as a fixed ability to people of any age
  • DO treat math more like we treat literacy
  • Do NOT reprimand incorrect answers
  • DO encourage individuals to recognize and learn from their mistakes
  • Do NOT rely on high pressure evaluations (e.g. timed tests) to assess learning
  • DO asses learning in more supportive and less high-pressure contexts (e.g. individual non-timed assessments)
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