Students’ Views of Math

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Different Student Views of Math

Students can have radically different views of math.  I’ve taught homeschoolers, dyslexic students, math teams, math-lovers, and math-haters at levels ranging from kindergarten through PhD level. Throughout this experience, I have been struck by the variety of student’s feelings about mathematics.  For a few, math is intriguing and enjoyable; they effortlessly understand the subject and it makes sense to them.  Others find math easy but relatively uninteresting, a hurdle to jump over.  A third group sees mathematics and freezes in fear.  For them, math is a mystery that they can never come close to understanding.

Freeze in Fear

Students in the “freeze in fear” group feel that the skill and understanding of mathematics is beyond their capabilities.  They feel demoralized when it comes to math and feel no hope that mathematics can ever make sense to them, and they find it frustrating.  They look for an explanation, and some of them may dare to ask, “Does it matter if I fail at math?  Is math important?”

Students know that math is supposed to be important – it’s part of our culture.  Yet, they often don’t see why.  In class, math may seem to be about memorization and formulas rarely used in real life.  Students may have had formulas and math facts drilled into them for years.  Many rebel against being treated like formula and fact repositories by refusing to pay attention to the “math” that is presented to them.

Love to Memorize

Other students enjoy the repetitive mathematics presented to them.  This group tends to excel at memorizing and applying formulas.  They calculate well: add, subtract, multiply, divide, and take square roots.   In elementary school, these students often develop high confidence in their mathematical ability.  Eventually, though, these students hit a wall in their understanding and end up confused and frustrated.  They enter a math class that stymies them, where calculation and memorization are not enough for success.  The class could be algebra or calculus or more abstract math.  These students found math easy until this particular class.  They also look for a reason. Why did math suddenly become an impossible subject for them?

Math as a Creative, Lively Subject

Both the “freeze in fear” and the “great memorizers” groups see math as a repetitive subject about memorization and application of formulas.  Its application to their lives and the real world seems small.  The subject seems to be about terminology without beauty or creativity.

Yet, there is a relatively small group of students, who see math as a creative, lively subject.  In the early grades, their test scores may not be different from the memorizers.  In the long run, though, these students thrive on math.  Math problems look like mysteries to be solved and understood.  These students feel truly puzzled that math isn’t fun for everyone.

Students’ views of math depend on their introduction and exposure to the subject. Teachers can greatly affect a student’s attitude toward math.  They have the ability to transform the way a student looks at the entire subject.  Students who see math as a repetitive, rote subjects can learn to see mathematics as a creative art.  When this happens, math becomes more joy than drudgery, for both the student and the teacher.  Over the years, I’ve seen this happen again and again.  On this site, I give you ideas, techniques, and strategies for transforming the way that you and your students look at mathematics.