Dispelling the Great Math Myth: Effort Trumps Ability in Mathematics Achievement

It’s the mystery of the century.  How has an entire nation of children come to believe that people are either good at math, or they are not?  Full of rock stars, superstars, and super athletes, we are a nation of have’s and have nots.  Being spectacular is something you are born with, or it’s because whom you are born to.  Our culture feeds this belief.  As math educators, it is our duty to dispel this myth.  We need to convince our students that effort matters more than ability in mathematics achievement.

Why is this important?  Because if students do not believe that they have the “math gene” then what is their motivation to even try?  No one wants to work hard at something and then fail.  Why take that chance?  Why even waste the effort?  We need to convince students that there IS NO MATH GENE, that everyone can be successful at mathematics.

In middle school I did not have a positive mathematics experience.  I went to high school not liking math and even thinking that I was “bad” at math.  An amazing teacher turned this all around for me and changed the course of my life.  (My story is here.)

This amazing teacher proved to me that everyone can not only learn mathematics, but also be very successful at it.  Her secret?  All you have to do is keep trying until you get it.  Students never believe me at first, but data is on my side.  Research has repeated proven that contrary to what everybody thinks, achievement in mathematics is determined more by your effort than your ability.  Let me repeat that, loudly


This does not say that some people are not naturally gifted in mathematics, because, as in all other aspects of life, we know that individuals are gifted in many different disciplines.  However, what this means to me is that everyone can be wildly successful in mathematics, if they are willing to put in the effort.  Do you think you aren’t that great at math?  Well then, your problem is solved.  Because now you know that all you have to do is just keep trying and you will have success.  Not only am I a living example of this, but I have taught many students in my years of teaching that have lived up to this research as well.  I used to hate math, but now I love math, and I love teaching math.

Dispelling the Great Math Myth – A 4-Step Program:

Many students won’t buy this.  But, even if you only can reach a few it is worth the time.  Even if they don’t believe you now, it will stick in their minds.  Maybe they’ll believe you later.  To change a student’s motivation to do math you need to change their attitude.  Many students don’t give effort in mathematics because they believe are going to fail before they even begin. Change their math.

1)   Sell It – Tell them that effort matters more than ability in math achievement.  You need to make this real to get them on board.  Tell them about your struggles in math.  If you didn’t have any, feel free to tell them about mine.  Show them the research.

2)   Face Their Fear – Focus on small topics that they have had trouble with in the past.  Do something different.  Do an investigation, make index cards, play a game.  Show them that math is accessible.  I love Dan’s post regarding this.

3)   Back It Up – with assessments.  Small quizzes work wonders here.  Make index cards in class for them to study.  One good grade at a crucial time in a math student’s year can make an amazing difference in effort.  Two good grades might even convince them that it was effort, and not just luck.  On an ongoing basis, I think this is where Standards Based Grading really shines.

4)   Did I Say SELL IT?! – Yes, this again, and again, and again.  Think salespeople here.  The “Three Times Rule” is king in advertising (frequency = 3).  Everyone in the advertising industry believes that in order for a message to “stick” with a potential customer, they must hear it at least THREE times.  Good salespeople never let up, they keep coming at you.  They keep calling you, and they repeat their message as much as it takes, until they get a sale.

Don’t expect instant success, don’t quit because you think it isn’t working.  One year I had a student that just wouldn’t buy it.  A year later I ran into her and she said, “Hey Mrs. Reulbach!  You were RIGHT!  It turns out that I CAN be good at math!”   That is why I do this.  I am passing the torch.

Here is some of the research.  Please feel free to send me links of research you are aware of and I will post it here (and on the Math Teacher’s Wiki).

Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel

Mathematics Achievement = Individual and National Success

Beliefs about genetic influences on mathematics achievement: a cross-cultural comparison

Research on Closing the Achievement Gap in Mathematics

Closing the Mathematics Achievement Gap in High-Poverty Middle Schools: Enablers and Constraints

Motivation for Achievement in Mathematics: Findings, Generalizations, and Criticisms of the Research

Re-examining the Self-Concept and Mathematics Achievement Relationship using Comparative Studies

8 thoughts on “Dispelling the Great Math Myth: Effort Trumps Ability in Mathematics Achievement

  1. I try to share that mathematicians – when really doing math – fail a lot. The thing is that they get good at failure. They learn from it. They know it’s necessary to get to a solution. It increases their desire to know. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth their time.

  2. I really enjoyed your last post about how that teacher brought Math to your Quality World. I was just about to comment on that post and then this post came up … and I was like whoa! Two fantastic posts of goodness.

    We are all different. I agree that if anyone puts a lot of effort into something – they can achieve better results. However, there is a reason that Michael Phelps is an Olympic gold medal machine – and I just barely cracked a swimming scholarship. We are all individuals with different abilities. Or maybe … I was just a slacker or success is relative.

    I do agree with you 100% … one needs to bring Math to the students’ Quality World… just as that teacher did for you – inspirational story btw. You are right that there is a correlation between the effort one puts forth in their Math studies and their relative cognitive results. Just as I pushed myself in swim practice … I became better … and hindsight I reached a very decent potential.

    The success needs to be relative to the student. We cannot be ignorant of the ability factor – that Math Gene. Math is a subject that requires a lot of creativity … and I have yet found a way to teach a student to be creative. Some students are NATURALLY better at Math than others (full stop). This only means that students have different goals and definitions of success and all at different times. The success needs to be individualistic and realistic.

    Have you read any of William Gasser’s books on Choice Theory? You would love them … for serious. I am not a huge reader and I couldn’t put these down. Helping students choose to do well in Math – you and that special teacher were a textbook example btw 😛

    Thanks for all the great posts 😀

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  4. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset is all about effort versus ability. She has done a lot of research over many years. Check out her brainology program at http://www.brainology.us/

    Here is a quote from that website:

    Mindsets are beliefs individuals hold about their most basic qualities and abilities. In a Growth Mindset, people believe they can develop their brain, abilities, and talent. This view creates a love for learning, a drive for growth and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishments. On the contrary, people with a Fixed Mindset believe their basic qualities, such as intelligence and abilities are fixed, and can’t be developed. They also believe that talent alone creates success, and see effort as a sign of weakness rather than as a positive element of life needed to reach one’s full potential.

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