Allison Yin/EdSource
Students do better in math when their teachers have a positive attitude about math, a Stanford study says.

Elementary teachers who changed their perceptions about math — such as who’s good at it and why it’s useful — saw their students’ math scores rise significantly, according to a new study by a Stanford University education researcher.

The study, published in the journal Education Sciences, showed that student scores improved after teachers took an online course explaining how anyone can be good at math, math is fun and useful, and can be taught in a more positive, engaging way.

“Many elementary teachers are math-traumatized. It’s amazing how many of them were given terrible ideas about maths as children,” said Jo Boaler, co-author of the study and a professor of mathematics education at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Boaler, who’s British, uses the British term “maths” instead of the American “math.”

Boaler and her fellow researchers recruited 40 5th-grade teachers from the Central Valley to take a 12-hour online math course she and her team created. The course, “How to Learn Math for Teachers,” covers perceptions about math, how anyone — with enough practice — can develop the brain skills to understand complex math problems, and how math is used in everyday life. The course also covers basic math concepts, such as number patterns and reasoning, and offers tips for teaching those concepts.

Boaler and her team also met in person with the teachers and followed up with surveys and interviews after the course ended.

A few months after teachers completed the course, their students’ math scores were 8 points higher on the Smarter Balanced standardized state test, compared to a control group of comparable students. Girls, English learners and low-income students did especially well, according to the report.

The key, Boaler said, was changing the teachers’ own ideas about math.

“Many grew up with the message, ‘You’re not a maths person.’ But we know that how you feel about yourself can have a great impact on how well you learn,” Boaler said. Changing the way teachers felt about their own mathematical abilities led them to like the subject, which boosted their enthusiasm for teaching it, she said. Their enthusiasm spread to their students, who in turn changed their own attitudes about math and performed better on tests.

For example, in the online course, Boaler explains how the brain creates new synapses when it learns something new and that anyone, at any age, can learn new things. The brain is a flexible organ, she says, and anyone can become “smarter” by learning new things. Therefore, people who are good at math weren’t born that way — they learned it bit by bit, which anyone can do.

She also shows how speed and right answers are not always the best ways to gauge a student’s math ability. Taking time to puzzle over a math problem, or experimenting with various answers, should not be penalized — it shows a student is thinking hard and learning the logic underlying a math problem, rather than reciting rote formulas.

Boaler and her team chose 5th-grade teachers because 5th-grade students fare worse on the Smarter Balanced math test than students in any other elementary grade. In California, two-thirds of 5th-graders failed to meet the math standards on the 2017 assessments.

Boaler was particularly heartened by how quickly the students’ test scores rose, she said. She wasn’t expecting to see such dramatic changes for at least three years, as teachers became more comfortable with their new teaching styles.

“Teachers were telling us, ‘I thought this was going to be great for the kids. I never thought it’d be great for me, too,’” Boaler said. “They really changed their overview of maths. It was a personal transformation.”

Support independent journalism

If this article helped keep you informed and engaged with California education, would you consider supporting the nonprofit organization that brought it to you?

EdSource is participating in NewsMatch, a campaign to keep independent, nonprofit journalism strong. A gift to EdSource now means your donation will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $1,000 per donation through the end of 2018. That means double the support for the reporters, editors and data specialists who brought you this story. Please make a contribution today.

Share Article

Comments (3)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Don 5 months ago5 months ago

    Ms. Jones, please refer to the corrective comments under your Oct. 2017 article, “Signs of Hope..Smarter Balanced Test Scores.” These point out the built-in aberrations in the methodology that allow students who have zero actual improvement to record a statistical rise by lowering the lowest possible scale score … changing the rules of the game, in effect.

  2. Don 5 months ago5 months ago

    Please indicate where on the data link provided a “dramatic rise” in test scores occurs.

  3. Bill Conrad 5 months ago5 months ago

    Teacher attitude is important but it pales in comparison to the role that math content knowledge, pedagogy, and assessment literacy play in improving student outcomes in Math. Colleges of Education fail teachers in all elements. Fix the root cause problem.