It’s time to say goodbye to math anxiety and self-doubt! Transform how students feel about math in your classroom and make it a safe learning space where students tackle and overcome challenges and grow their confidence in math with these 5 strategies.
1. Make participation low-stakes
For people and students who have anxiety around math, it can feel really scary to be put on the spot. That’s why we need to design some low-stakes ways for students to participate and share their thinking.
The key here is that we are not lowering the rigor, we are just shifting our instruction strategies.
How does that look?
One safe way for students to participate is with gestures. When using gestures, I have students put their fists to their chest so only I can see their answer, not everybody else. Then I have them give me a signal. It could be to rank their understanding of the lesson from 1 to 5. It could be to demonstrate how many strategies they came up with on their fingers.
Gestures are less threatening because students are not on the spot. They don’t feel like other students aren’t looking at them, ready to pounce. Instead, they feel like part of the herd and can quietly communicate with me, their teacher.
Another way to make class less threatening is through the use of pair-share.
I make it a rule to never cold call on students until they’ve had a chance to practice. I think of it as a “warm call” because they’ve had a chance to be warmed up.
How does that look?
If I ask students to explain the difference between an obtuse and an acute triangle, I won’t just ask the question and take the first hand. That teaches students that speed is the most important thing in math when, in reality, it’s not.
Instead, I give them time to think. Then I have them talk to a partner. This way they’ve had a chance to form their own opinion, hear someone else’s explanation, and practice their own explanation.
This think-pair-share time is not only great for lowering math anxiety but is also a really critical step for language learners. You can read more about using think-pair-share and other strategies to engage with language learners here.
As part of my “warm call”, I call a random non-volunteer after the pair-share. At this point, I do hold them accountable for answering, as they have had a chance to work on their answer. However, students feel much safer and the stakes feel lower because they have had the chance to practice rather than being put directly on the spot.
2. Which One Doesn’t Belong?
My all-time favorite math warm up is Which One Doesn’t Belong. This activity is perfect for building student confidence in math because there are so many ways for students to be right. I love it so much that I’ve written about it before.
Consider the image below:
You might say the trapezoid doesn’t belong because it’s the only fraction not equivalent to the others.
You might say that the blue rhombus doesn’t belong because it’s the only rhombus.
You might say ⅓ doesn’t belong because it’s the only one written in fraction form.
You might say the green triangles don’t belong because it’s the only one with 2 in the numerator or 2 shapes.
And you would be right!
I’ve seen a huge change in student confidence from doing this activity, just from the beginning of the warm-up to when I leave a class after doing a demo lesson. Teachers frequently tell me that they can’t believe how certain students completely lit up during the activity.
If you don’t want to create or find your own Which One Doesn’t Belong problems, you can find my premade slides and task cards with answer keys here. They’re available in English, Spanish, and in a bilingual bundle with both.
3. Read 3 Ways
Another way to change how students feel about math and increase their confidence is through a word problem comprehension strategy called “Read 3 Ways”. (I have a full post on this that you can read here).
In Read 3 Ways, you spend more time breaking down and understanding the problem than you do doing the calculations. This means that by the time you send the students off to start solving, they’re all so sure about what they need to do that they take off running, including your students who are anxious about math.
So how do you use the Read 3 Ways strategy?
First, select a word problem. If possible, cover up the numbers and the question.
Read the problem the first time. Ask students, “What is this problem about?” Give them time to discuss in pairs, and then discuss as a class. It should sound something like, “This problem is about Rosie and Jason sharing a pizza.”
On the second reading, introduce the numbers. Ask them, “What quantities are in the problem?” Again, give students time to talk. This might sound something like, “There is ¾ of a pepperoni pizza and ½ of a cheese pizza.”
For the third reading, ask students to generate their own questions that can be asked and answered by the problem. After giving them time to talk with a partner, call on students and chart their questions. Tada! This list of questions just became a list of challenge problems for early finishers.
At this point, you reveal the question, which in this case could be, “If Rosie and Jason split the pizza equally, how much does each person get?” By the time you get to this point, your students have a deep understanding of what is happening in the problem and are ready to launch. They feel confident that they understand.
Read 3 Ways can be used with any problem. However, to save you time, I have premade slides in Spanish and English for addition & subtraction and for multiplication. You can find those here.
4. Make error analysis a common practice
I love all the growth mindset posters I see hanging in classrooms. “I can’t do it yet“. “Mistakes are your brain’s way of growing.” But are we putting into action what those posters say?
We can talk a big game about how mistakes are important (and they are!) but we need to show students with action.
By incorporating error analysis on at least a weekly basis, you can show students that mistakes are normal and we can work together to solve them.
To do error analysis, I made up a fake character, whom I lovingly call Bobo. When I say, “Bobo has some math work to show us,” it already cues my students that we’re going to be doing error analysis.
I present Bobo’s work and ask them to work in pairs or groups to find the mistake. Over time, error analysis builds the culture of working through mistakes. Mistakes no longer devastate their confidence, and instead they see that it’s part of the process.
5. Praise the process
My last tip for raising student confidence in math is to think through how you praise students. Are you praising students who are done first? Are you praising students who are always right?
I encourage you to praise the process. Praise students who are working hard, not giving up, and using their tools. These are behaviors that anyone is capable of, and it will raise your students’ confidence when they see their hard work being praised.
Changing How Students Feel About Math
You can help students feel more confident in math by creating safe ways to participate, using strategies such as “Which one doesn’t belong?’ and “Read 3 Ways”, and praising the process. Math confidence can be built by teaching kids that making mistakes is a normal part of learning and not a sign that they are bad at math.
As Confucius once said, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.” With these tools, you can help your students take an active role changing how students feel about math and create a more enjoyable learning experience.