Poor performance in previous math classes and low confidence are some of students’ biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to math success, according to a new survey about math education.

The survey of more than 400 high school math teachers comes from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). Teachers in the survey are all coaches for student teams participating in the MathWords Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national online contest SIAM organizes.

The results indicate that students don’t need innate math genius to excel. Instead, they need practice, confidence, and real-world connections.

“Contrary to public opinion, the results of the survey demonstrate that success in math is not based on nature, but rather, an aptitude for math can be nurtured with effort, motivation, and self-assurance,” says Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at SIAM. “The results also reinforce the importance of making math relevant to everyday life as a foundation to increase students’ desire to learn.”

1. Top 3 success factors

Teachers said the top three success factors for high math performance are: working hard to understand math concepts and knowing when to apply them versus simply memorizing formulas (75 percent); having the desire, initiative, and motivation to succeed (63 percent); and having confidence in their abilities and believing they can succeed (48 percent).

2. Bumps in the road

Low student confidence is one of the biggest roadblocks to math success, according to 65 percent of surveyed teachers. Lacking an adequate set of skills from previous math classes is another (52 percent), along with students opting to memorize formulas instead of working to understand actual math concepts (50 percent).

3. Teachers’ advice for students

Teachers said students should pay attention in class and not be afraid to ask questions (66 percent); should ask for help whenever needed (52 percent); and should work with a math teacher or mentor to build confidence and better understanding of math concepts (43 percent).

4. Boosting interest in math

Real-world application rules when it comes to increasing students’ math interest. Eighty percent of teachers said they apply math concepts to real-world problems to engage students and increase their understanding. Forty-nine percent said they build students’ confidence by helping them excel at a slightly lower level of math and then work up from there.

5. The struggle is real

If students struggle with math concepts, surveyed teachers overwhelmingly suggested asking a teacher, parent, or friend for help (63 percent), while 18 percent recommended taking a break and revisiting the problem later. Only about 3 percent suggested searching online for answers.

6. Parental support

Most surveyed teachers chose the following three things parents can do to help their children succeed in math: avoid speaking negatively about math (73 percent); encourage students to seek help when needed, such as from a friend, teacher, or outside resource (70 percent); and show an interest in their children’s math studies and talk about what they learned in math that day (45 percent).

Making math relevant outside the classroom is the underlying reason MathWorks sponsors M3 Challenge, says Lauren Tabolinsky, MathWorks academic program manager. “Our support of M3 Challenge is one more step in our efforts to help teachers as they motivate and inspire young students to consider and pursue STEM careers,” she says.

“M3 Challenge reinforces the importance of math in everyday life and encourages computational thinking, logic, problem solving, and even some technical computing and programming among high school students,” she adds.

The full survey is available by request here.

Laura Ascione
About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura