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).

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Change Someone’s Math…Care

Please don’t give up on the student that is “too far behind”, even if they are a senior in high school.  You may not even know it, and the student definitely won’t know it, but it is possible to change their life.

I grew up in a small town with very average schools.  Few graduates went on to 4-year colleges, far fewer graduated.  I was an advanced student and in the “honors track”, however, I had miserable middle school math experiences.  I had terrible teachers, I sat in the back, I tuned out.  They let me.  I scraped by.  I was quiet, so they were happy.  They didn’t care.

In high school I switched from regular Alg II to Honors Alg II because the honors teacher didn’t check homework, ever.  This teacher also taught my older brother, whom she loved.  I got to run all of the class errands.  On test days, she would walk over to my desk and point out the answers of the multiple choice tests.  She didn’t care.

I landed in Pre-Calculus junior year.  I was beyond lost.  I wanted to drop.  My teacher wouldn’t let me.  For the first time, my math teacher cared.   In this school system, many of her students had been through all of these average math teachers.  Enter mathematics basic boot camp.  She started us out with algebra.  She then moved us through geometry.  By Christmas we had finally made it t0 pre-calculus.  We worked hard.  I now know that she worked harder than any of us.

My senior year she taught calculus, so I took it.  It was the only class I had to work at that year.  At the end of the year, I made an A on the University of Kentucky’s calculus final exam.

She didn’t give up on me because I was “too far behind” or because “it was too late”.  She changed the course of my life.  I graduated college summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.  I received a full graduate fellowship to Wake Forest University in mathematics.  I was able to choose the mathematics path because ONE teacher cared.

She is why I became a teacher.  She will forever be my inspiration.  I may not ever be as gifted of a teacher as she is.  However, I can care as much for my students as she cared for me.  Hopefully, I can improve someone’s life as she improved mine.

Thank you Mrs. Miracle, for being a perfect model of how to care, and for changing my life because of it.

Thanks to all of the teachers out there that work with students that everyone else has given up on because they are “too far behind” or because it is “too late”.   It’s not always fun, and it is never easy, but it is always worth it.

Intrigued – Concept Based Assessment

Alright already – I am intrigued if not yet convinced I can do it.  You math bloggers out there are really getting to me.  I know this – I hate the current method of grading.  I am forever tweaking at the end to give each child the grade that I believe matches their understanding.  Kids in the middle I can’t help – but kids on the edge are why I am up until 2am working on grades at report card time.

Can I do it?  I don’t know!  With all new subjects (and grade levels) it will be like I am going to be a first year teacher again in the fall.  But this time I have three kids who are heavily involved in sports and an equally busy husband.

The Good – I am in a private school so we do not have “standards” like the public school.  So, I will refer to it as “Concept-Based Assessment”.  I love the idea of the concept based assessment.  I love the idea that my students and I will know what concept each of them need work on.  I already made my list of concepts I would like to cover for 7th grade.

The Bad – I already made my list of concepts I would like to cover for 7th grade and I have almost 50!!  I loved doing this however bc it really laid the year out before my eyes and made me determine what was the most crucial to cover and what was not as important.

The Ugly – I don’t know how this will fly with my school or students.  I don’t know if I can keep up with the constant retesting that this seems to require while planning two new classes.  I may even do this in tandem for a while to see how it is working before jumping off of the cliff.

I made my first concept based assessment today.  It really felt TOO short.  I am a bit torn.  My ratio change has to be priority number one this year.  But I would really like to give this a stab as well.

Yes, as usual I am spiraling towards the “biting off more that I can chew” year.  Business as usual for me!  🙂

The Method to My Madness…Suggestions needed

I love organization.  I love when everything has its place and there is a place for everything.  It makes me feel at peace.  However – I am just terrible at it!  My solution this year?  I am trying to create as much organization as I can NOW because I know I won’t take the time once school starts.  Spending hours trolling the internet and typing up cool worksheets is infinitely more interesting than labeling file folders!

So, I thought I would share how I am organizing and hopefully others will share some of their better organizational tips with me.  Because as I said before – this is not my forte.  Yeah, I know only like three people read my blog but ya’ll are great math teachers so…

I make a file folder for each chapter.  In this goes the “planner“, any projects or activities that I would like to do but don’t know which section they will best fit into yet, and a copy of the concepts that I would like to cover.

I make a file folder for every section that I will cover in the book.  All of the great ideas that I find I am actually printing off instead of just saving to my ‘puter (sorry trees) and putting in these folders.  This time around I am labeling with concepts (mult/divide fractions) instead of chapters so I can easily find WHAT I am looking for in the future.

Other random folders in the box are review games, projects, ideas from math conferences.

Ok – that’s all I’ve got for now!  Help!

Learn by DOING takes a lot of work on my part!

I am currently not working.  I will begin in the fall.  I have my books.  I would like to plan as much as possible in advance so that my life won’t be insane next year.  Plus, I will have my three beautiful, crazy, very high maintenance boys home starting June 1st.  I am running out of time!

My problem?  I am trying to change my ratio.  I am trying to incorporate learning by DOING.  This is hard to plan.  Writing down a warm-up, some examples, a few GP’s and a hw assignment?  No problem – it takes no time!  Trying to come up with creative, active, and interesting ways to present math each and every day?  It’s crazy fun but takes so much more time!

So, I spend countless hours trolling the internet, blogs, and Amazon.com for the newest, latest, greatest teaching math methods and books.  But, when it comes right down to it, no matter how many lessons you borrow off of the net, you still have to get them ready all by yourself.  You have to read, understand, edit, and incorporate your material.  You have to make it your own and make the supplies.  You still have to create, for every single lesson, for every single day.  I have yet to find an activity that I can just print off. 

NOW I am seeing why worksheets are so popular!  But still I resist.  I will change my ratio.  I do and I understand, I do and I understand, I do and I understand….

Changing My Ratio

After reading many books and blogs on the subject I have decided that this year I WILL change my ratio.  (Is this Lemov language)?

I will not stand in front of the classroom the whole period.  I will not walk around just talking.  I will talk less.  I will walk more.

My students will take fewer notes.  They will do more problems.  They will work harder.  They will learn by DOING.

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

A New Beginning, Again…

After not teaching for almost ten years I jumped back in mid-year last year, but then right back out again.  Extenuating circumstances prevented me from teaching this year.  It has been difficult (being at home the first week of school about killed me), but I have survived!  This year everything is working out better than I could have ever asked.  It is at times like this when you realize God’s perfect plan really is in place, even if you absolutely could not fathom it before.

I am ecstatic to teach again next year, as in I CAN’T WAIT!!  I am teaching middle school math – which I have never taught before.  I am so excited to not only teach something new, but to teach students as they first encounter algebra.  I hope to not only make them understand mathematics but also to become deeply fascinated by it!  I want to embed in their minds that math is not “hard” and that they can excel at mathematics.

My only problem – I am out of it!  My absentia from teaching coincided directed with the largest internet boon since the internet was developed when I was in college.  I am new to blogging, tweets, wiki’s, and a host of other amazing resources at my disposal.  I am soaking it all up as fast as I can.  I read every blog I can get my hands on.  It is thrilling! 

I feel like I am beginning again – and I am loving it!