Effective Effort: Key to Girls’ Success in Math

It seems every year, I have at least one girl in my class who says, “I can’t do it.  I’m no good at math.”  These students believe that math comes “naturally” to other people (and not to them) and that there is little they can do to become strong math students.

Nowadays, the words “I’m no good at math,” just get me fired up.  I hear them, and I think, “that’s a student who is going to have a transformative year.”  Because I know that effective effort + time = success, and soon, she will, too.

I’m far from the only one who thinks this way.  Check out this research summarized in the most recent Marshall Memo (9/14/09):

Girls in Math and Science

(Originally titled “Encouraging Girls to Pursue Math and Science”)

In Educational Leadership, researcher Tracey Huebner shares recent findings on girls’ math/science achievement. “Research shows that the achievement gap in mathematics between boys and girls has all but disappeared,” she says. But girls’ gains are not matched by career choices. It appears that at a young age, girls rate their math ability lower than boys, and researchers believe low self-efficacy ultimately influences career choices. To attack this problem, there are three promising strategies:

Teaching students that academic abilities are malleable, not innate;

Female math/science role models;

Interim-assessment feedback praising effort and accomplishment (“You’ve really mastered conversion of fractions to decimals”), identifying errors, and teaching strategies.

On the last point, a third-grade study found that “most teacher feedback is vague, limited to summative phrases (such as “very good” or “try again”) with little or no detail, either positive or negative.” Conversely, when teachers praise effort and teach strategies, girls are more likely to ask for help and less likely to believe that making a mistake is the result of a lack of innate ability.

“Encouraging Girls to Pursue Math and Science” by Tracey Huebner in Educational Leadership, September 2009 (Vol. 67, #1, p. 90-91); the full article is available for purchase at

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership.aspx; Huebner can be reached at thuebne@wested.org.

I would just take the assertions in the article one step further.  Although teacher praise can have a huge impact on students, I think it’s even more important that students learn to praise themselves.  Through the structure in homework choice (and soon in independent reading choice), students learn to self-reflect, self-evaluate, and identify why they were successful.

Once students can internally praise their efforts and accomplishments, the cycle is self-sustaining.  We can’t forget that, ultimately, students have to achieve at high levels even when the teacher isn’t around.

— a. fox

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