11 Ways to Build Math Confidence

Mathematics is a vital discipline for examining the past, gauging the present, and solving future challenges.

Also, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) jobs are more abundant, more lucrative, pay more, and are critical to solving challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and national security.  Oftentimes, STEM fields depend on mathematics.

Yet, we don’t have enough people educated within STEM fields. One problem is that some people don’t think they can do mathematics. In short, many need more math confidence.

To help, we interviewed educators, parents, and students on skills that help develop everyone who desires to learn and enjoy mathematics. We want everyone to know that they can not only be math people, but savor the joy, wonder, and incredible power of mathematics.

Here are 11 tips for students, teachers, and family members to consider.

  1.  Accentuate favorite math experiences. 

Explore what was a very pleasurable memory in mathematics and emphasize what made it so.

Maybe it goes back to a childhood experience of “School House Rock” with “3 is a Magic Number” or “Sesame Street” and the Count. Maybe it was having a particular teacher who brought out his or her marvel for mathematics while holding a real-life cylinder or triangular pyramid. Maybe it was an open-ended project that allowed a student to connect mathematics with an interest or hobby: snowboarding and mathematics, dance and mathematics, gymnastics and mathematics, music and math, etc.

  1. Participate in fun, creative, real-world math projects. 

More and more teachers and professors as well as students are demanding a more explorative approach to mathematics. This includes relating photography, art and writing to mathematics.

Similarly, students are often more encouraged when they can visualize real-world applications of mathematics. For instance, the beautiful geometry of some fractals can be utilized in data storage or predictions of stock market fluctuations. Math and physics go strongly hand in hand with engineering, robotics, biomechanics, and many other areas.

According to one student:

“I do think that these things (creative approaches) would help decrease the anxiety around math. I especially think that getting students to look at math in a more creative light will help increase their confidence in math.”

And another:

“I would also say that doing problems that have real-world value helps encourage us to keep learning. When you can see why a math concept is important for real life it makes you want to apply yourself more.”

  1. Celebrate mistakes and allow numerous revisions.

Mistakes can be viewed as a teachable moment, one for progress. As Jo Boaler once stated, “Mistakes grow your brain.” But emphasizing what a person did wrong and being overly punitive in a math class can turn almost anyone off to it. Chastising a student is never good pedagogy. Inviting students to learn from their mistakes is a healthier and more sustainable pedagogy, such as promoting multiple revisions and even extra credit revision assignments, so students see more humanity and hope in mathematics. Practice compassionate math with yourself and others.

  1. Student-centered learning

Have students decide what they study and how those subjects will empower them.

Asking students for input in their mathematical learning also expands their mathematical horizons. Here is how one student recently responded to some questions with an online open-ended custom assignment titled: “Math and Me!”

“I really liked learning about patterns, graphs, charts, etc… I think this is because I like organizing and presenting data in an appealing way. I also like working out algebraic equations and solving for the variable. I like this because I like solving problems and finding solutions.”

  1. Utilize interesting technology

Desmos, online whiteboards, graphing calculators, and more accessible technologies can make mathematics more liberating and even free one up to concentrate on concepts rather than grunt work, such as graphing endless points by hand or crunching too many numbers.

  1. Have students create story problems

Given a certain concept like unit rates, trigonometric functions, or polynomials, students are empowered when they create a certain story problem for others to solve rather than always just completing problem sets.

According to one student:

“Have the kids draw two points with chalk on the asphalt, then draw a line through both points. Explain how these points are collinear. Then have the kids experiment to see if they can make any more collinear lines.”

And another student’s idea:

“Have the kids use toothpicks and gumdrops to create three-dimensional shapes. You could even use rulers and teach the kids how to find the volume of cubes, pyramids, etc…”

  1. Foster mathematical reflection

Assignments that ask students to reflect upon what they did and what went well and what can be improved are important to gaining confidence as well. During reflection, students also solidify what they did well to make them more successful in the future.

From one student who developed a “Math and Movement” project:

“I enjoyed the assignment very much as I was able to enjoy myself while understanding the terms better. The terms I used were variable, coefficient, and term. The photos I did were literal in the sense I was actually trying to depict the numbers.”

  1. Facilitate Open Mathematical Communication

Students need to feel like there is no stupid question and feel supported in a math class, just like any class.

Creating a safe space educationally is paramount. Creating supportive math circles and math partners either in person or online can do wonders.

  1. Provide Role Models

Employ math teachers that look like students, such as math teachers who are women or people of color.

Have students study mathematics done by a variety of genders and cultures in history and in the present day. People benefit when they see that people like themselves are successful mathematicians.

  1. Believe Everyone can do the math. Be inclusive.

In 2023, we now know that everyone has the mental capacity to do mathematics, despite the historical belief that only white men could do it in the past. Start calling yourself and your friends mathematicians if they are engaged in any type of mathematical activity. Start thinking about activities that you enjoy in ways that can be mathematical, such as knitting, quilting, sports and our environment.

“I remember when my friend and I could decorate our hands with henna on special occasions. And instead of drawing flowers and patterns, we would paint our hands with mathematical formulas and equations,” Malala Yousafzai said, in her Nobel Peace Prize Lecture

  1. Celebrate joy, awe, and eureka moments of math!

Get giddy about an elegant mathematical proof. Mull over a way to make a playful game out of a mathematical concept.  Think of the steps of solving algebraic equations as a meditative journaling process. Love the beauty of a flower or tree? You might also be enjoying a Fibonacci number or tessellation. Behold the math moments in nature.

The miracle of nature in general has amazing connections to math, and can often be captured in photography, and in poetic mathematical writing, such as an explanation of “Melting Snow Cap Atop Dried, Spiked Echinacea in Easement Garden”:

This snow cap is a 3-D parabola, also known as a paraboloid, and the dried Echinacea is more sphere-like with varying length radii. Crystalized snow is fractal-like.

See what Galileo Galilei savored:

“The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics … the symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word.”—Quoted in M Kline, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times

 Full Disclosure: In addition to being a freelance writer/journalist, Iadipaolo is Clonlara’s Online Mathematics and Electives Teacher. She began her work there in 2017. She also develops open-ended, creative projects with her students, such as relating mathematics with art, poetry, movement, and other disciplines. Iadipaolo earned an Honors Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and three teaching certificates Majoring in math, English, and social science. She formally began teaching in 1993. Additionally, Iadipaolo earned a Master of Science degree in Mathematics Teaching and Learning from Drexel University, a Master of Arts degree from Eastern Michigan University, and an Education Specialist degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of West Florida.