Many kids believe their brains just can’t process math. Here’s how you can prove them wrong.

Doubt can be a dangerous enemy… and not just for students.

Take back-to-back MVP basketball player Stephen Curry for example. He didn’t make a single three-pointer in last week’s game. He could have stopped shooting the ball so often… but then he scored 13 three-pointers the next game, breaking the NBA record.

Elon Musk spent all his investors’ money failing to launch three different rockets. He could have listened to the nagging voice in his head saying, “hey man, maybe outer space isn’t your thing.”

Then he launched his fourth rocket successfully and NASA gave him over a billion dollars.

While the odds were clearly not in favor of either of these men, and their outcomes are statistical anomalies, their stories tell a universal truth for students struggling with math class: you’re only as good as you tell yourself you are.

One UCLA professor sought to find out why we tell ourselves that our brains are only geared to think a certain way. How do we rationalize the idea that we’re somehow genetically bad at math? He came up with three strategies that can help students with self-doubting tendencies:

1. Work, work, work, work…

The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck … aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work.

A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

Basically, Rihanna hit the nail on the head: “work work work… learn learn learn.”

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Most students’ frustration comes with the feeling that no matter what they do, something blocks their success: the teacher always looks down on them, their friends will laugh at them, or they feel they just don’t belong in the class.

We can help students fight these negative impulses by making sure their homework is meaningful and manageable. That the work they put in outside of the classroom will directly translate to success during examination. Pinpoint areas of struggle and make sure they aren’t just working hard but efficiently as well.

2. Speak their language

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

Much like the first strategy, this is why access to 1-to-1 learning is so important to a student’s developmental capacity. Specialized teaching, with patience and positive reinforcement can only happen when an instructor has time to interact and problem-solve directly with the student.

Mobile tutoring apps like Yup are the best conduit to the kind of tailored feedback students need to solve problems. Whenever they hit a wall doing homework and can’t necessarily call their teacher at night (or can’t afford a regular tutor for just small questions), world-class tutors are available to look at the problem at the push of a button. They figure out where the student needs help and works them through the concept.

3. What really matters?

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

Students face endless social media distractions. On Instagram and Facebook feeds, it’s easy to disconnect and escape from our personal values when looking at how someone else lives her life. Having your kids spend time articulating what truly matters to them can go a long way in helping them visualize success.

On their own, ‘studying’ and ‘homework’ don’t usually come to mind when students think of personally meaningful activities. They are important ways to achieve success, but it’s still work. The Yup app is an interesting tool to use in this exercise because when students can finish their homework more efficiently, they have more time to focus on fulfilling their personal goals. Sure, they’ll also do better on tests, but that only grows their confidence that much more.

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