I’m doing something new this year: I’m teaching four sections of a math intervention course. I have all sophomores who’ve had a history of doing poorly in their past math classes. I’m loving it.
One thing I did on the first day with these students was give a survey. The purpose of this was for students to reflect on their past experiences and how their time in this class would work.
Their responses were honest and heartbreaking and sobering and important. Its amazing for me to see and interact with these students in my classroom, but then read about the experiences and self-perceptions that brought them here.
I’ve curated some choice quotes from their responses and I want to present them with a minimal amount of comment. I’m putting them here because they definitely made me reflect on some of my assumptions about this demographic of student, so maybe they’ll do the same to you.
Prompt 1: What is it that makes math classes hard? Is it the way that its taught? Did you have a bad class when you were really young? Is there something about Math itself that you just don’t like?
“Sometimes they are taught too fast. I always struggle with math but I think if I put effort into it I will learn it”
“I learn better when a teacher can go step by step”
“I give up when I keep getting things wrong like on tests and homework”
“I sometimes can’t concentrate when our classes are full of noisy people”
“Having your friends in class is hard because then you can’t focus”
“What makes math class hard is probably myself. I was absent and missed a lot of instruction. I would talk more than work. I was lazy on some days. I actually like math”
“It gets boring sometimes”
“If you don’t understand a few steps then all the problems that are like that become difficult to solve and become frustrating”
“I don’t ask for help”
“My teachers go too fast. Once I got the operation down, they would start something new”
“It’s boring and I don’t like to pay attention”
“The symbols that are used. Some of the teachers that I’ve had in the past have been too professional with the way they explained themselves”
“Not asking for help when I’m having trouble”
“I never learned math last year because we had laptops and all we would do is problems I didn’t understand and the teacher never explained them”
“The teacher picks on me because I don’t know anything. I feel stupid compared to everybody else”
“When I was younger my teacher didn’t explain that well for me to understand it. And I never asked questions. When I got older I got into the habit of not asking questions so I didn’t like math and I thought I would never understand math”
“Some teachers don’t really teach it right. Or maybe they do teach it right but not in a way that will help us understand”
“If you know the answer and raise your hand and someone else gets picked then that makes it hard. Last year when I needed help the teacher would be a smartalec and compare me to other students”
“When they don’t slow down”
“It seems like in middle school is when I gave up; otherwise I was really good in elementary”
“It just keeps going and going nonstop, to the point where there are just too many numbers. I get lost after too much explaining and I’m just too shy to ask for interactions again”
“I’m a daydreamer, but even when I’m paying attention I still don’t understand”
“I was never a big fan of formulas”
“I’m always that student who has a question but is too shy to ask because of fear that people will think I’m more stupid than I already am”
“The teacher expects us to understand it in our first try”
“The math classes that I’ve always had were very big so it was always hard to focus in class”
“I never listened to my teachers who were explaining it to me and because it was boring. I got distracted or just plain did not want to listen”
“Just paying attention and staying on task and doing my homework. I wouldn’t ask questions and I wouldn’t do my homework”
Prompt 2: Some people believe that intelligence is fixed – that some people are just naturally smart, especially with math. Others think that intelligence can change – that with effort and determination, our intelligence can grow. Which one of these do you agree with?
“I do not agree with this because if you want to learn math you can learn. Math can sometimes be hard but not impossible to learn”
“There are geniuses born to do math”
“Intelligence can change if you put your mind to it”
“I personally think that intelligence can change with effort and determination. That our intelligence grows”
“I’m in this class because I’m in the [resource] classes and other teachers never took the time to help me so I could understand it. Instead they just pass me along in school so I never learn the base things I need to learn”
“I think that the smart people are just born smart. The people who have trouble with math – I guess we weren’t lucky. I guess we were born with less intelligence. I just wish I was smart”
“I feel like you can change only if the person wants to. The person just has to be strong”
“With effort, determination, and time your math skills can improve”
“I think intelligence is fixed because some people love and enjoy math while others hate it”
“It’s like playing basketball – if you’ve never played basketball, you can’t just go out and be a beast. You gotta practice practice and practice to be a star player”
Prompt 3: Why do you think you were invited to this class? Think back to your first few years in school and in your math classes – what is it that led you here? Is it your grades? Motivation? Past test scores?
“I am willing to be here to learn more”
“I know I’m capable of doing it, it’s just a matter of effort I put into my work. I know I need dedication & faith”
“I didn’t turn in work”
“I need to catch up with my peers and work on paying attention”
“I don’t listen very well and I get bored easily. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to understand”
“We all need help in class and I know if we all work together and accomplish our goals, we’ll do better in math as a group”
“My motivation was never positive. I know I can’t do math so I’m never positive about it”
“They chose me because they believe in me”
“I don’t do tests well”
“My self motivation is actually low. Because I thought I was so stupid, I didn’t give myself motivation. My grades were good but my test scores were horrendous”
“I’m not that intelligent enough for math and I need help”
Prompt 4: What is something you want to accomplish while you’re in this class?
“I wanna be able to say ‘I can do that problem’”
“I want to learn. I want to get better”
“I want to know how to start a problem. I want to be more dedicated & confident”
“I want to understand math in different ways, even if its hard work”
“I want to try my hardest to prove to myself and everyone that I’m able to do it”
“I want to make math class worth my time”
“I want to pass this class so I can graduate high school”
“I want to learn everything I can this year and be smart because I consider myself dumb. Math is my worst subject. Honestly I hate it, it’s hard and weird”
“I want to be able to do all the work all by myself”
“I want to know the best way to solve a problem not the easiest”
“I know that if I try my hardest I ca be someone in life and be math-problem free”
“I want to be able to complete long step equations. I don’t math to be a subject that I will have to be worrying about”
If you made it down here, you may be interested to know that my survey was inspired in part by Bryan Meyer’s survey he gave his students about Habits of Mind (which overlaps a bit with my demographic in terms of one’s self-perception of their math ability). You may also be interested in a similar idea I had two years ago on successful students and effective teachers.