Teaching Math Self-Esteem

Written by Lauren Wolf
Assistant Professor

Too often students come to math class fearing the subject and lacking faith in their mathematical abilities. Teaching math-self-esteem aims to overcome students’ fear in a supportive environment that fosters an openness to receiving mathematical concepts and methods and a confidence in their ability to absorb and implement them.
Teaching math-self-esteem requires efforts to connect with students. Students are more receptive to mathematical concepts and methods when both they and the professor are engaged in a collaborative process. This engaged collaboration is fostered by breaking down the teacher-student hierarchy through building and maintaining connections with students. Talking in math classes, in particular in developmental classes, about life and current events appears essential because otherwise the students appear disengaged. Engagement in a positive classroom culture is absolutely essential for classroom success. Motivated students actively take part in the learning experience and feel responsible and included in their own mathematical growth, which fosters their math-self-esteem.
It is important to believe that all students have the ability to succeed in math. It is equally important as an educator to create a relaxed environment in order to draw out the mathematician that resides in all students. This classroom culture aims to nurture and open the mathematical imagination of the students. One very important rule in this type of classroom environment is that students can never insult one another. Class participation is a tool to engage the students and to build his or her confidence. The ultimate goal in this approach is to instill mathematics competence, especially among students who have likely experienced major gaps in instruction and many past failures in mathematics. Teaching with this approach has had some great success. It is such a pleasure to witness some of the most insecure math students grow in confidence and may even become math majors.
After teaching everything from developmental math to 400-level complex analysis and in several settings (Prison, University, College and Community College), in every class the key to success seems to be connection, real and genuine connection to the students.

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