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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