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Influencing Attitudes and Beliefs: How Sense of Belonging, Growth Mindset, and Self-Efficacy Can Influence Students' Math Skills

By Karyn Lewis | July 6, 2018


Karyn
Lewis
Karyn Lewis is a senior researcher at Education Northwest. She works on a diverse range of projects related to science education, educational equity, college access, and social-emotional learning and development.

Our culture holds strong stereotypes about math more than most other academic subjects.

These stereotypes tell us that math ability is innate—you've probably heard someone described as a "math whiz" or a "numbers person."

However, we rarely think of skills in other academic subjects in this black-and-white, "you've either got it or you don't" kind of way.

In addition, we have stereotypes about who is likely to be a math genius. A quick online image search for "math genius" underscores this point. The results tend to depict men or boys and few people of color—a reflection of our cultural assumptions about who is good at math.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes are pervasive and persistent (even among young children), and they can have a negative impact in the classroom.

For example, if students do not "fit the mold" of a math genius, they might feel as if they do not belong in a math class.

This can lead to disengagement and prevent students from performing to their utmost potential.

In addition, it can prompt students to interpret setbacks and challenges more pessimistically (e.g., a poor quiz grade is taken as proof that they do not have what it takes to "fit in" with math).

This, in turn, can affect students' growth mindset—the belief that with hard work over time, you can get smarter and learn new things.

It can also have a negative impact on students' self-efficacy, which is the belief that you can accomplish a given task or succeed in specific subject areas.

Attitudes and Beliefs, Not Skills

It is important to emphasize that sense of belonging, growth mindset, and self-efficacy are not static concepts, nor are they skills that can be learned.

Rather, they are all attitudes and beliefs that students are constantly renegotiating as they encounter new peers, different teachers, and more challenging concepts.

These attitudes and beliefs are also domain-specific; students may have a growth mindset in social studies but not art, for example.

The good news is that adults play a major role in establishing contexts that dispel negative stereotypes and help children and young adults cultivate positive attitudes and beliefs.

And as it relates to math, educators can implement certain strategies and classroom practices to positively influence students' sense of belonging, growth mindset, and self-efficacy.

Helpful Strategies

In partnership with the Washington STEM Education Collaborative, REL Northwest recently provided a training series focused on increasing the capacity of Washington educators to improve elementary school students' attitudes and beliefs about math.

The trainings emphasized teacher practices rather than a curriculum, and they provided participants with practical strategies, including:

  • Make eye contact with students and pronounce their names correctly
  • Celebrate failures and encourage mistakes
  • Set up group learning opportunities so that students can build relationships with their peers and see one another's successes, as well as their struggles

REL Northwest plans to extend the trainings to different age groups and state contexts in the near future.

In the meantime, educators across the region and the country can use materials from REL Northwest's Building Positive Math Attitudes training series to find both simple and more involved ways to help all students succeed in math classes.