New evidence reveals the best way to motivate students in maths
How can teachers get more students to like doing math? Source: Shutterstock

Students all around the world moan and groan when it comes to maths homework, and even when it’s time for mathematics class.

It’s often seen as one of the most challenging subjects in school, and many students who feel they aren’t good at maths tend to steer away from the subject as soon as they have the choice to do so.

They often go for more arts-based programmes at university-level, believing they won’t have any real need for maths out in the world. But often, these programmes require students to take a maths course or pre-requisite, so you can’t really run away from the subject.

Even in the real world, students from all backgrounds will likely have to do some form of mathematics in their personal or working life.

Disliking maths starts early on, when students aren’t able to build on a strong foundation in the subject, and end up resenting it all the way into adult life.

So how can teachers make maths more interesting to engage young minds to actually like the discipline?

For every student who hates maths, there is one who enjoys the subject and relishes working out problems. What sets them apart? It could be their mindset.

A new study reinforces a long-standing belief that being motivated to do math has to do with the mindset – specifically, the growth mentality.

The growth mindset refers to the belief that students can improve on their intelligence, ability and performance, as opposed to the fixed mindset, which refers to the ideology that one’s talents are already set in stone.

According to InnerDrive, “Years of research have shown that mindset is malleable. This means that by helping students to develop a growth mindset, we can help them to learning more effective and efficient.

Research has shown that the growth mindset is a legitimate theory, and that people’s mindsets can change over time, but a new experiment shows clear evidence that it really is true when it comes to maths.

A recently-published study in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education provided proof that teaching maths through methods that encourage a growth mindset not only motivates students to learn, but also changes the way their brains tackle problems.

Here’s how they came to the conclusion; according to EdWeek, “Researchers from the University of Essex, United Kingdom, used an EEG to track brain activity as college students worked through either standard math problems or those previously shown in research from Stanford University researcher Jo Boaler to encourage a student’s growth mindset.”

Approaches that encourage the growth mindset include having multiple methods, pathways and representations (instead of just one fixed method), giving students opportunities to conduct their own inquiries, asking the problem before teaching the method to solve it, and asking students to explain the math in a visual representation, like a chart.

Other ways include using a task that engages students of both higher and lower math abilities, and asking students to reason out their findings for a particular problem.

Students were not aware they were being tested on their mindsets, as the report stated, “Notably, we do not tell participants what mindset theory is and instead simply investigate whether mindset problems affect reported motivation levels and neural correlates of motivation in learners.”

For students who did the standard math problems, they answered more accurately than those who did the ‘growth mindset’ problems.

However, they showed less interest in completing the test, as opposed to the other students who became more motivated as they worked, in comparison.

The report stated, “We find significant increases in motivation for mindset problems compared to standard problems. We also find significant differences in brain activity in prefrontal EEG asymmetry between problems.

“This provides some of the first evidence that mathematical mindset theory increases motivation (even when participants are not aware of mindset theory), and that this change is reflected in brain activity of learners attempting mathematical problems.”

Helen Hindle, Head of a Maths Department in Rainham, East London, explained the differences between growth mindset and fixed mindset in students.

She wrote on GrowthMindsetMaths, “Pupils with a growth mindset believe that talents can be developed and great abilities can be built over time, view mistakes as a opportunity to develop, are resilient, and believe that effort creates success, and think about how they learn.”

Pupils with a fixed mindset, however, “believe that talent alone create success, are reluctant to take on challenges, prefer to stay in their comfort zone, are fearful of others, think it’s important to look smart in front of others, and believe that talents and abilities are set in stone so you either have them or you don’t.”

If schools are teaching students how to learn maths using a fixed mindset, it’s no wonder so many get demotivated along the way.

So if you’re a teacher struggling to get students motivated in math class, a switch in approach that encourages growth mindset could be just what you need.

And for students who feel they were just not born to do math, don’t give up! Changing the way you do math could change how you feel about the subject and inspire you to have more confidence, and in turn, ace your maths tests!

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