How To Improve Numbersense – Number Relationships: Counting Part Three

We want children to have a ‘feel’ for numbers—the ability to work flexibly in solving number problems. That is called numbersense. Numbersense is the mastery of number concept, number relationships, and place value and their integration. Mastery means (a) understanding, (b) effective and efficient strategies, (c) fluency, and (d) applicability. Numbersense leads to the mastery of numeracy.

Mastery of numeracy should be an essential outcome of the elementary school (grades K through 4) mathematics curriculum. It is the facility in executing the four whole number operations, including standard algorithms, correctly, consistently, and fluently with understanding.

Poor numbersense in children is due to inefficient strategies such as relying on sequential and rote counting of objects (e.g., blocks, chips, fingers, or marks on a number line). Learning facts and procedures through rote memorization without understanding does not help children in making connections between numbers, arithmetic facts, concepts and procedures. When they encounter new concepts or need to apply mathematics ideas to problems, they find it difficult. And, they give up easily. As a result, many are termed “slow learners.” Often, our pedagogy turns them into slow learners.

Able children are shown and practice efficient, effective, and elegant strategies. Less able or children with special needs simply are not shown the same techniques. With inefficient and less effective strategies, children end up spending enormous amounts of time deriving even the simple facts. This makes the tasks laborious and they either do not succeed or lose interest and lag behind.

Definitions of arithmetic operations such as: addition is counting up, subtraction is counting down, multiplication is only skip counting forward, and division is skip counting backward, do not lead to efficient strategies. For example, less successful children see subtraction as an isolated concept without connecting it with addition. They do not capitalize on learned addition facts. A similar situation happens with division. They end up spending more time on acquiring mastery of subtraction and division facts with limited results. These children have difficulty becoming flexible and fluent in arithmetic facts. Mastery of arithmetic facts is an essential element of numbersense. When addition and subtraction are shown as inverse concepts/operations, the mastery in one reinforces the other. Similarly, after initial introduction of multiplication, children should be taught that multiplication and division are inverse operations.

Mastering arithmetic facts using efficient and effective strategies and models frees children’s working memory. Then, they can engage in learning and mastering higher order thinking skills and applications, easily and effectively. Higher order thinking is dependent on flexible numbersense and the mathematical way of thinking.

The mathematical way of thinking is the ability to: observe patterns in quantity and space, visualize relationships, make conjectures, predict results, and then communicate observed connections and their possible extensions using mathematics language and symbols. Mastering arithmetic facts is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for higher mathematics. Competence in numbersense translates into effective mental math—the hallmark of mathematical thinking.

Number Relationships
Children with numbersense make connections, generalizations, abstractions, and extrapolations of number patterns they observe and processes they have mastered. They link new information to the existing knowledge and develop insights about number and their relationships.

Understanding Number: Spatial and Quantitative Relationships
The fundamental relationships between numbers at elementary level are expressed in two forms:

Spatial: The spatial aspect of number is determining the relationships between numbers by their locations and proximity with each other. The child knows a number when she can locate and place the number on an empty number line in relation to other numbers (to the right of, left of, how far from, or how close to a given number). Being able to point to a number and its place on a number line is not enough to understand number relationships.

Spatial aspect also relates to positional aspect of number: e.g., the second from the start, third person in the row, tenth’s book in the row, etc. The numbers in this form are called ordinal numbers. Children learn ordinal numbers before they learn the quantitative aspect of number.

Quantitative: The quantitative aspect of number is the value of the number. How big? How small? More than? Less than? It is the understanding that a number represents the magnitude of a collection. It is knowing that number is the property of the collection, not just the result of counting. And that the last number used in the count, from any direction, indicates the size of that collection. This value has a unique place on the number line. This is the cardinal aspect of the number (the magnitude, numberness).

Numberness is to know: Is the number bigger than another number? What number is half-way between 10 and 20? Can you place ‘three numbers’ between 45 and 55? What digit is in the tens’ place? What is the value of the digit in the tens’ place? What is 10 more than 67? What digit in the given number has the highest value? What is 8 + 6? What should we add to 9 to get to 17? What is the difference between 17 and 9?

Any question about number relates to both aspects of the number, but questions such as the following mainly relate to the spatial relationships between numbers:


On the whole number line above, what number comes after 17? Place 22 on the number line. What number comes before 45? Is the number 29 closer to 20 or 30? To answer these questions, the child refers to the spatial idea: Where is that number located in relation to other number(s)?

The following questions are related to quantitative relationships between numbers: Without referring to or drawing a number line: Give a number between 23 and 29. What number is 10 more than 54? What is 8 + 6? Give a number between and ½? What number is 3 less than 23? What number is more than 3? What is the next tens’ number after 53? (Tens number are: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, etc.)

If a child can answer these questions only by the help of a number line, then that is not indicative of mastery of the number. Applying only spatial, sequential counting to derive arithmetic facts disadvantages children.

Many children use only the spatial aspects of number in deriving and understanding number relationships (facts). When they have to answer questions such as: What is 5 more than 7 or 2 groups of 7 they get the answer by counting on a number line, objects, or on fingers. Truly understanding number relationships and acquiring efficient strategies for mastering arithmetic facts, one needs to integrate spatial and quantitative aspects of number. To learn efficient strategies for mastering numbers facts one needs: (a) sight facts (including making ten), (b) what two numbers make a teen’s number (e.g., 16 = 10 + 6, and (c) what is the next tens after 43, etc.) Instructional models such as Visual Cluster Cards, Cuisenaire rods, and Empty Number Line help in this integration and acquiring effective, efficient strategies.

The concept of place value is an example of this integration. To know the whole number 235 well, one has to focus on the spatial aspects of the digits (1’s, 10’s, and 100’s places; although the numbers increase to the right, the place values of digits in a multi-digit number increase to the left) and the values of these individual digits contribute to the understanding of the value of the whole number itself. For example, both the Standard (5,694) and the Expanded Forms (5000 + 600 + 90 + 4) and later on, Place-Value form (5×1,000 + 6×100 + 9×10 + 4×1), and Exponential form (5×103 + 6×102 + 9×101 + 100) of the number take advantage of understanding and mastery of quantitative and spatial aspects of number. The same concept is then extended to factions and decimal numbers.

Making Numbers and the Number Line Friendly
Daily Counting Using Number Line
To develop number relationships, forming a visual image of a number line is important. This means: (i) mentally locating numbers on the number line, (ii) recognizing the patterns and structure of the number system, (iii) extending those patterns (e.g., 3 comes after 2, so 23 comes after 22, 73 comes after 72, 173, comes after 172), and, (iv) applying these patterns to solve quantitative problems. This competence is the beginning of developing a robust numbersense.

Games and Toys
Children develop number relationships through routine counting while interacting with their environment as part of normal growth and development. Playing with games, toys and remembering number rhymes and stories bring out counting and number relationships. Board games, using dice, dominos, and playing cards are opportunities for learning number relationships. However, informal and infrequent play may be slow or inefficient for the development of number relationships. Formal exposure to appropriate, diverse activities and effective strategies assures efficient development of numbersense in children. For example, Number War Games[1] using Visual Cluster CardsTM (VCC), dominos, and dice are excellent examples of such activities.

Formal Counting
Children’s practice of meaningful, strategic counting is an important preparation for developing efficient calculation strategies. Counting is a complex process. It involves several sub-skills and takes considerable time to become fluent and competent. Unitary counting (sequential counting from 1) is children’s first exposure to the structure of number line, but it becomes progressively complex with age and grade.[2] For example, it should progressively include counting by 2s, 5s, 10s, 100s, by a unit fraction, proper fraction, mixed fraction, decimal, etc., starting with any number and moving forwards and backwards. Such progressively complex counting strengthens numbersense.

As children become competent in counting, they begin to visualize the number line—number patterns, locations of numbers and their relationships. Crossing the decade/century and realizing the counting patterns is an important achievement for children in understanding the structure of our Base Ten number system. Children’s observed number patterns on real and visualized number line help them develop strategies that give them power to develop and understand efficiency of arithmetic operations. For example, a child observes that 42, 52, 62, 72, and 82 is a sequence of numbers increasing by 10 and they occur 2 after respective decades (tens). She, later, uses it to solve a real problem: what is the change when she has spent 52 cents from a dollar? She discovers that the change could be calculated by counting up by 10 from 52 till she reaches 92 and then 3 more to 95 and 5 more to the dollar (e.g., 4 dimes + 3 cents + 1 nickel = 40 + 3 + 5 = 48 cents). And a little later, she realizes, 52 and 5 tens is 102, that is 2 more than the dollar, so change is 48 cents. Or, 50 + 5 tens = 100, but we should have started at 52, so it 50 – 2 = 48 cents. Similarly, at a later date, to find the product 16×3, a child thinks: 16 is 10 + 6. 10×3=30, 6×3=18, 30+10=40, 30+18=48, so 16×3=48.

What To Do During Counting?
Counting should be a whole class activity, first oral and then in writing. Counting should begin with a number line (with numbers marked and displayed from 0 to a number beyond 100). A portion of the number line, preferably from 0 to 35 should be at children’s eye level and rest on the wall.

During the counting activity, the teacher should emphasize when a decade is complete. She should help children see that something important is happening when they reach a new decade—a new group of tens. Similarly, she should point out what is happening immediately after and before tens numbers (e.g., multiples of 10). She should emphasize what is before and after the new decade (the new ten). Knowing what is before and after that decade is a difficult concept for many children. For example, she should point out that when the count reaches a new tens, e.g., 30, 40, 50, …, the cycle of the count of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 is complete and then repeats again and again.

In counting whole numbers on the number line, children should be able to realize the cyclic pattern of the base-ten system:

…29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, …etc.

This cyclic pattern is the key to understanding number relationships. Initially, counting should be done on a number line in linear form (as seen and discussed above) so children develop the idea that numbers are continuously increasing to the right and decreasing to the left. In later grades they will extend it and understand the idea of positive infinity (+∞) and negative infinity (−∞).

When children see the progression of number in a 10×10 grid form, they see cyclic patterns much more clearly. This understanding of number relationships and structure leads children to arithmetic operations.

1,   2,   3,   4,   5,   6, 7, 8, 9, 10,
11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20,
21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30,
31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40,
41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50,
51, 52, …

Most children develop this structure independently with little help from others. However, for others, it is important to formally develop it.

Mid-line Crossing Problem
It is important to begin counting on the horizontal grid (shown above). Some children, because of their mid-line crossing problem (MLCP) may not discern the pattern easily as they do not see the horizontal numbers on a number line as “equidistant.” For example, many children with MLCP, see the equidistant numbers displayed in the first row (below) as in rows two or three where the numbers are not equidistant. In row two, they are jumbled up in the two ends and in the third row, they are jumbled up in the middle.

1,   2,   3,   4,   5,   6,   7,   8,   9,   10    (row one)
1, 2, 3,   4,     5,     6,           8,9,10    (row two)
1,   2,   3,   4, 5, 6, 7,      8,  9,   10     (row three)

When the numbers are organized vertically, it is easier for them to see the patterns.

Counting Using Number Grid
Number Grids are horizontally (figure one) and vertically organized (below) One). The Horizontal Grid is a 10×10 grid, with entry of 1 in top left most cell. Each row ends with a multiple of 10. The Vertical Grid is a 10×10 grid with top left most cell with entry of 1. Each column ends with a multiple of 10. The procedure for counting using the grids is the same as the number line. Counting on grids can be done horizontally and vertically.

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Locating Numbers on an Open/Empty Number Line
Kindergarten and First Grade
On one side of the room hangs a clothes line (low enough so children can reach it and high enough so it does not interfere in their movement). On clothes pins write numbers in dark ink from 1 to through 100. The multiples of ten numbers are written in red. Similarly, the numbers with 5 in the one’s place are written in green.

The numbers: 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95, 100 are known as Bench Mark Numbers—important in our Base-Ten system. With practice, children see all numbers in relation to bench-mark numbers. Bench-mark numbers serve as the markers for estimation, location of numbers, and approximating the outcome of arithmetic and algebraic operations.

Place the numbers in two buckets. Numbers 1 through 30 in one bucket and numbers 1 through 100 in the second.

In later grades, children encounter other bench mark numbers, such as: ½ (.5, 50%, etc.), square numbers, certain products of numbers (e.g., multiplication tables), π, standard trig functions (e.g., trigonometric function values of 30°, 45°, 60°, etc.) and important parent functions in algebra.

The teacher points to the clothesline and asks each child, in turn, to pick a number from the bucket and place it on the clothes line in its place. Children take their turn placing their numbers. A child can move or adjust the place of the numbers already placed on the line in order to locate his/her number. Teacher should ask children the reason for the placement of their numbers, adjusting the numbers on the number line, and the relationship of their number with other numbers, particularly with the bench-mark numbers.

In the beginning of the year, the teacher should use numbers from 1 to 30. After about 2 months, she should use numbers up to 100 and beyond. After half-year, the teacher should give children an empty number line (ENL) on a sheet of paper where two end numbers are written, and she dictates numbers and children locate the number’s place and write the numbers on the ENL.

Grades Two and Three
The teacher should give children a sheet of paper (2”×11”) each side having an Empty Number Line (ENL) drawn on it with two end numbers. The end numbers change every week.

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Ÿ She dictates 10 random numbers between the two end numbers and children locate the number’s place and write the numbers on the ENL as the numbers are dictated. After children have located the numbers they compare their ENL with their partners and come to agreement on the locations of these numbers. The corrected locations are placed on the ENL on the other side of the paper. This activity should be part of a daily math lesson.

Grades Four through Six
The same activity as in the grades 2 through 3, but the choice of numbers changes. The numbers can be whole numbers, fractions (unit fractions, proper fractions, mixed fractions), decimals, and percents.

Grades Seven through Nine
The same activity as in grades 4 through 6, is repeated but the choice of numbers changes. The numbers can be real numbers (whole numbers; fractions—decimal numbers, percents; integers; rational numbers and irrational numbers).

Activity Two
Every day, before children arrive, the teacher places cards with random numbers written on them (numbers appropriate to grade level). Each child picks a card, and when children line up, each child follows the order by the number on his/her card. Children keep their cards ready; before any classroom activity, the teacher calls on them by specific criteria: The person with the card between 1.5 and 1.6 will answer the next question. The choice of numbers changes every day.

Daily Oral Counting
Daily counting is a warm-up activity for grades K through 8. It could be part of the calendar activity in grades K through 2. The choice of number to count with should be related to the main mathematics concept taught in the classroom that day. For example, when children, in the third grade, have been introduced to fractions, it is a good idea to count by unit fractions. Similarly, when children are adding and subtracting fractions with same denominators, counting should be backward and forward by a proper fraction. It is one of the tools for helping children to have a deeper understanding of number.

Each child should have a Math Notebook where all of his/her mathematics work is recorded. It is the sequential record of classroom mathematics writing: language, concepts, operations, definitions (examples and counter examples), conjectures, proofs, formulas, calculations, constructions, drawings, sketches (geometrical shapes, figures, diagrams, etc.), summary and reflections on class mathematics work. The written work should be done in pencil. Only when the teacher wants a short answer, an example, immediate feedback to a definition, concept, or a procedure, children can use individual white boards. In math notebooks, one can have several examples in succession, so children see emerging patterns. Individual white board work does not leave a history of their work and they may not be able to observe patterns. We, as math teachers, should remind ourselves and our children that: “Mathematics is the study of patterns. It has deep structures.” For this reason, we should help children to observe these patterns in their work and recognize the structures that emerge from these patterns.

Procedure and Language for Counting
Here are the points to consider during the daily counting process (at least five minutes). Each teacher should adapt these to suit her students’ and her instructional needs.

  • The teacher should announce the counting number and start number (later children can select the starting number and the counting number). These numbers should change each day.
  • During counting, when children give their numbers, the teacher should repeat each number clearly enunciating each word. This is particularly important at the Kindergarten through second grade.
  • The teacher should record the numbers from the count on the board creating columns and rows. Children record the numbers on their graph papers in the same way, in columns and rows. The starting number should be placed in the uppermost left corner of the paper (in the first full column of the paper). Leave one column between the columns for comments. As the columns of numbers emerge, the number of entries in each column must be same. For example, begin with 4 numbers in each column. Each day, change the number of rows up to about 10. Having the same number of entries in each column will produce patterns both horizontally (in rows) and vertically (in columns). It makes counting a rich activity. It also provides opportunities for differentiation. “High flyers” can be asked to give numbers horizontally and others vertically.
  • During the counting, the teacher should ask specific children to come forward and record the number on the board. The child writes the number on the board in the appropriate place. The teacher takes this opportunity to model the writing of multi-digit numbers: Are they of the same size? Are they at the same level? Are the digits equidistance? Are they aligned with each other?
  • Counting activity should include counting both forward and backward (not necessarily on the same day).
  • Each child should have the opportunity of responding a few times during the counting.
  • The choice of a number for counting begins from the easier one in the beginning of the year to bigger and more difficult numbers as the year progresses. For example, one should begin counting by 1 forward and backward in the beginning of the Kindergarten and counting by 10 toward the end of the year.[3]
  • Counting by 2 can be assisted by using the Number line, Hundred’s chart, using the Cuisenaire rods’ staircase, the standard number grid, or Vertical Number Grid.[4]
  • Counting by 10 can begin concretely, using the Cuisenaire rods and then without them. For example, begin counting by a number, say 7, ask a child to pick up the 7-rod (black). Write the number on the board. The child gives the rod to the child to his right and that child adds the 10-rod and calls out the number (17). The teacher writes the number on the board, starting the first row or column (below is the example of the first row). The process is continued for several more times. And then the teacher encourages children to extend the pattern without the rods. She keeps it on till children can give the next few numbers without the help of rods. Next day the counting by ten can begin with picking another rod. Toward the end of this forward counting begin counting backward from the last number.

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  • When the teacher begins any counting, she asks who has the next number, and then the next one, till several numbers in the count are generated. This should be done by volunteers first and then by randomly selecting children or the ones who need support. One should take advantage of high flyers’ knowledge of numbers as a starter. Never give the number easily. Try to derive the number with the help of children using decomposition-recomposition process. Someone will come forward. I have never been disappointed in any class, in any school. Some child in every school, in every class comes up with the next number and then others pick up the theme and the pattern and the learning process and counting begins. When a particular child is stuck on getting a number, give him clues: start with the facts he already knows. For example, if the child (Kindergarten level) does not know what comes after 54, go back to the child who gave 51, and continue, most times the child will come up with the number. If he still does not come up with the number, ask him: what comes after 4? If he answers correctly. Ask him: what comes after 14? Etc.
  • It is important that the teacher openly acknowledges the child who gives the correct number by children clapping twice in unison. Never leave a child without success. Help each child to taste success, even if it is just what comes after 7 or before 7.
  • Once a pattern begins to emerge and children understand the task and the count, ask them to write the next five numbers and place them in the proper places—in the correct columns so that they can observe the emerging pattern in numbers. As children write the numbers, the teacher walks around the room asking each student to give an example. Some children will readily observe the emerging patterns, both vertically and horizontally. Avoid having children give the pattern too soon. Instead, devote enough time discussing the numbers so most of the children see the patterns. It may take several days.
  • Do not disclose the pattern, let children arrive at the pattern. Ask teams of two children to discuss the number relationships and the process. Let them arrive at different patterns. Only when most children are able to give the correct entry, then ask a child (not a high flier) to articulate the pattern.

This counting will result in a Dynamic Vertical Grid. In the beginning of the year, the counting will take longer; however, as it becomes a routine, it will take less and less time and more will be accomplished. Soon the counting process becomes an important means for making formative assessment of children’s numbersense.

  • During the counting, the teacher should ask a great deal of questions about the numbers—place value, digits, values of digits, location of the number, one before, one after, 10 more, 10 less, what is the next tens, what is the next whole number, etc. These questions instigate mathematics language, concepts, and mathematical ways of thinking.
  • The teacher can make up impromptu mathematics problems: What is the difference between 2 consecutive numbers (in the same row, in the same column, both in the same row but few cells apart, both in the same column but a few rows apart, etc.).

Counting Example Grade One/Two:
Following is an example of daily count (for first grade during the middle of the year and in the early part of the year in higher grades):

Teacher: Let us count by 5 forward starting with 49. We will write the numbers in the first column. You do the same on your graph paper.

The first column and the beginning of the second column is derived together.

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Now ask children to write the next five numbers in the count. They should begin from the cell marked by “*”. As they are writing their numbers, the teacher should go to the child who is struggling and help generate one or two numbers. For example, she asks:

Teacher: What are we adding to 99?
Child: 5.

Teacher: What is 1 more than 99?
Child: 100.

Teacher: Good! We have added 1 to 99. Where did we get 1 from?
Child: Did it come from 5?

Teacher: Yes! That is good. Now, what is left from 5 to be added after adding 1?
Child: 4.

Teacher: 4 is added to what number?
Child: 100.

Teacher: Very good! What is 100 + 4?
Child: 104.

Teacher: Good! So, 99 + 5 is what number?
Child: 104.

Teacher: Now continue. What is the next number?
Child: That is easy. 104 + 5. I know 4 plus 5 is 9. So, 104 + 5. That is 109.

Teacher: Great!

Then the teacher moves to another child.

If a child has finished writing 5 numbers, she checks his work. If it is correct, she asks him/her to check other children’s work as they finish the task. If two children have finished writing the numbers, you ask them to compare their entries with each other and make corrections. If they have any disagreements, they should come up with consensus by supporting their arguments. When many more children have written all the five numbers, ask them to compare the answers in pairs. Keep on making pairs to correct each other’s work and checkers to check other children’s work. The teacher, with the children’s help, writes the five numbers on the board. The teacher should begin with the child who was struggling and then move on to others.

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Children who are able to complete the task earlier, are asked to write 7, 8 or more entries. The numbers in red are the entries provided by children.

Then the teacher asks children to work in pairs to identify the numbers in the place indicated by “___”.

When children (in teams) have found the number in the indicated place, she asks them to supply the numbers. She records them on the board in a separate place than the grid. She discusses their answers and asks for their methods of finding these numbers. Children defend their answers. Exact answers are identified. Then, the most efficient methods for finding the exact answers are identified. Entry in the place is made. If time permits, she creates more places with the red line (___).

The Modified Vertical Grids are effective in helping children improve the numbersense and to assess if children have acquired the structure of the number system. In vertical grids some of the entries are left blank to perform formative assessment. Children are asked to give the missing numbers by counting horizontally and vertically.

Counting Example at Grade Three/Four Level:
Numbersense is a constantly evolving skill for a child. One of the processes is to relate the new numbers being introduced to the numbers the child already knows. In the third grade a new set of numbers (fractions) are introduced in earnest. Therefore, it is important to begin to relate fractions with whole numbers and with each other.

In third grade, counting using whole numbers (1, 2, 5, 10, 100, and 1000), starting from any number should continue. However, towards the end of the year, when the concept of fractions is being introduced to children, the teacher should introduce counting by a unit fraction. A unit fraction is a fraction with numerator as 1. Following is an example of counting by a unit fraction (e.g., ⅕) starting from 4. All other elements of counting procedure remain the same as before.

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Counting Example at Grade Four/Five Level:
During grades four through six, our focus is on understanding and operating on fractions (and all the other related concepts). In the fourth through sixth grades, we need to relate fractions to each other and whole numbers, decimals, and percents. Although in fourth grade counting using whole numbers (1, 2, 5, 10, 100, 1000, and unit fractions) starting from any number continues, children should begin counting by proper fractions. In the fifth grade, they should add counting by mixed fractions. Following is an example of counting by a mixed fraction (e.g., 1⅖) starting from 4. All other elements of procedure remain the same. In these grades, they can also count by decimals.

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The objective of the daily counting tools (Number line, Open/Empty Number Line, Horizontal and Vertical Number Grids, Modified Number Grids, Hundreds Chart, Modified Hundreds Chart, Dynamic Number Charts, etc.) is to develop and improve numbersense. This objective can be achieved if children are given enough practice in counting using these tools and if they achieve the bench-marks in this activity at their grade level[5].

Each classroom should have clear display and use of these tools. However, they should not be overused for deriving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts and operations. Their overuse makes children dependent on counting as the only strategy for developing arithmetic facts.

[1] See Games and Their Uses in Mathematics Learning by Sharma (2008).

[2] See the goals of counting at each grade level in Part One of this series on Numbersense.

[3] For the numbers to be used at each grade level see previous posts on Numbersense on this blog.

[4] See the Numbersense Part 1 in this series of posts.

[5] See first post in this series on Numbersense.




How To Improve Numbersense – Number Relationships: Counting Part Three

Role of Homework and Achievement

The role and amount of homework to be assigned is the most controversial topic of discussion among educators: teachers, parents, administrators, psychologists, and researchers. Even politicians get into the fray.

Researchers have been trying to figure out just how important homework is to student achievement. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) looked at homework hours around the world and found that there was not much of a connection between how much homework students of a particular country do and how well their students score on tests (OECD, 2009).  However, in 2012, OECD researchers drilled down deeper into homework patterns, and they have found that homework does play an important role in student achievement within each country.

They found that homework hours vary by socioeconomic status. Higher income 15-year-olds, for example, tend to do more homework than lower income 15-year-olds in almost all of the 38 countries studied by the OECD. Furthermore, the students who do more homework also tend to get higher test scores.

An important conclusion of the study is that homework reinforces the achievement gap between the rich and the poor. For example, in the United States, students from independent schools do more homework than students from Christian/parochial and other religious schools.  And students from suburban public schools do significantly more homework than those in urban public schools except the urban public examination schools. It is not just that poor children are more likely to skip their homework, or do not have a quiet place at home to complete it. It is also the case that schools serving poor children often do not assign as much homework as schools for the rich, especially private schools.  Other findings from this study are also instructive. For example,

  • While most 15-year-old students spend part of their after-school time doing homework, the amount of time they spend on it shrank between 2003 and 2012.
  • Socio-economically advantaged students and students who attend socio-economically advantaged schools tend to spend more time doing homework.
  • While the amount of homework assigned is associated with mathematics performance among students and schools, other factors (teacher competence in subject matter and classroom management; higher expectations from students, parents, and teacher; amount of classroom time allotted to content, etc.) are more important in determining the mathematics performance and achievement of school systems as a whole.
  • Homework patterns among 15 year-olds, revealed that the children in western countries get much less homework than children in eastern countries. For example, students in United States and UK are assigned an average of five hours of homework a week compared to nearly fourteen hours in Shanghai, China, and nearly ten hours weekly in Russia and Singapore.

There are many other studies about the role and utility of homework with conclusions ranging from assigning no homework to students should be assigned substantial daily homework. However, most such studies are survey types that describe the state of homework and opinions about homework. There are some correlational studies where students (or their parents) are asked about the amount of homework they do and the status of their mathematics achievement. These studies are also suspect as the responses are purely subjective. The problem with such studies is that the quality and nature of homework vary and is self-reporting. These are not causal studies.

Most research indicates that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignments are well thought-out—systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-regulated learning.

Researchers emphasize that homework should not exclusively aim for repetition or revision of content, as this type of task is associated with less effort and lower results.  Research has consistently found that students who work on their own on their homework, without help, performed better—score higher than those who ask for frequent or constant help.  Most studies show that self-regulated learning is aligned to academic performance and success. Self-regulation, organization, and perseverance are important components of the complex of executive functions.

When it comes to homework, how is more important than how much.

The Purpose of Homework
Meaningful homework is a means to reinforce classroom learning in the home.  Homework transfers learning from formal, socially guided learning to individualized responsibility and accountability.  The impact of supervised and independent practice using effective classroom instructional techniques and well-organized homework is well known to teachers. Teachers know that both provide students with opportunities to deepen their understanding and skills relative to content that was initially presented and practiced in the classroom. Most teachers and parents know them as important factors in student achievement; however, what and how to make them real and useful is a problem. The objective of teachers’ assignments should always aim to have impact. Effective teachers, therefore, plan activities in such a way that they have the most impact. For assignments to have impact, students need to practice (a) choosing strategies and (b) have retention.

The objective of homework is to:

  • Communicate to students that meaningful learning can continue outside the classroom;
  • Help children to develop study habits and foster positive attitudes toward school;
  • Reinforce and consolidate what has been learned in the classroom;
  • Helping students recall previously learned material;
  • Prepare, plan, and anticipate learning in the next class;
  • Extend learning by making students responsible for their own learning.
  • Practice to achieve fluency by initiative, preparation, reinforcement, preparation, and discipline of independent learning.

For these reasons, daily homework assignments should not be busy work but should always be well thought out, meaningful, and purposeful.  To achieve the stated goals of homework, it should have three components: cumulative items, current practice exercises, and challenge tasks. The integration of these tasks adds a key element of learning—reflection on one’s learning. Reflecting on one’s learning aids in the development of metacognition—a major ingredient for growth and achievement.

Principles Guiding Homework
Research shows that homework produces beneficial results for students in grades as early as second.  I remember, my daughter wanted to do her Kindergarten homework too when her older brother was doing his homework. A routine was set. The earlier these routines are set, the earlier the formation of life time habits.

There are three parties to homework: teacher, parents, and the student.  When homework compliance does not take place, we need to work on all the components and find ways of removing any hurdle. Teachers design the homework; parents support the homework completion, and students complete it, alone or with someone’s guiding support. The following principles can guide teachers and parents:

  • The school, with teachers, should establish and communicate a homework policy during the first week of school. The policy should be uniform across grade and subject levels. Students and parents need to understand the purpose of the homework, the amount to be assigned, the positive consequences for completing the homework; description and examples of acceptable types of parental involvement should be provided.
  • The amount of homework assigned should vary from grade to grade. Even elementary students should be assigned homework even if they do not complete it perfectly.
  • Research indicates, to a certain limit, homework compliance and mathematics achievement are related. The curve relating the time spent on homework and mathematics achievement is almost an inverted “wide” parabola. For about every thirty minutes of additional homework a high school student does per night, his or her overall grade point average (GPA) increases approximately half a point. In other words, if a student with a GPA of 2.00 increases the amount of homework he or she does by 30 minutes per night, his or her GPA will rise to 2.5. On the other hand, oppressive amounts of homework begin to reduce its benefits. Homework is like exercise, difficult to start and keep up, but the more we do it, the better we get at it and, within limits, we can do more.
  • Parents should keep their involvement in homework at a reasonable level. At the same time, parent involvement in the classroom should be welcomed.  Parents should be informed about the amount and nature of homework, and they should be encouraged to have moderate involvement helping their children. Parents should organize time, space, and activities related to homework.  Parents should be careful, however, not to solve content problems for students; they can give hints, or explain the method, but not give a method, which the student does not understand. Giving “tricks” to solve problems is not useful in the long run. There are no tricks in mathematics only strategies. An efficient strategy for others looks like a trick because they may not have the reason why it works.
  • Not all homework is the same. That is, homework can be assigned for different purposes, and depending on the purpose, the form of homework and the feedback provided to students will differ.
  • All assigned homework should be commented on and responded to because the benefit of homework depends on teacher feedback.Homework with the teacher’s written comments has an even greater positive effect on students. It provides a formative assessment, information how the student is doing. This also offers information for parents about standards, pedagogy, and methods of assessment. When homework is assigned but not commented upon, it has limited positive effect on achievement.  When homework is commented on and graded, the effect is magnified. In addition to teacher corrected homework, homework can be self-corrected by the student with the teacher providing the answers.  The homework can be peer corrected. Some homework is corrected publicly under the teacher’s guidance. Still, at least once a week, the homework is commented upon by the teacher. These comments should address common problems – lack of concept, misconceptions, poor language, inefficient procedures, poor organization, and misunderstanding of standards – as well as the efficient and elegant methods and concepts used by students.
  • Homework is practice. Students should practice at least 30 minutes a day on their academics just as they would an instrument or a sport. If one plays multiple instruments or multiple sports, does one give only 30 minutes of practice for both? Of course not! The same goes for reading and math, science and social studies. Research shows about 1 to 1 hour per day (7.5 hours a week) of homework, on consistent basis, can achieve the goals of homework.
  • Parents should be active participants in their child’s academic career. However, that does not mean doing the homework for their child because it would be counterproductive. They can make sure to remind their child to do the homework and that it gets completed. They can give suggestions when necessary and review completed homework. Homework is a child’s academic practice. He/she needs rewards and consequences and a great deal of encouragement.
  • Administrators and teachers should do everything to impress upon parents to make sure that they, in turn, make learning a priority for their children and practice every day. However, schools should not make children’s achievement solely dependent on this variable. They should make sure that all children get enough practice in the school itself. The lessons should be planned and delivered in such a way that there is enough practice in the classroom so that children feel confident in tackling the homework themselves.

A teacher should always ask: “Does the completion of homework have any impact on her instruction? Does it inform her instruction? Does it contribute to the teaching and learning of the new material? Does she learn something about the child and/or her teaching from it?”  If the answer is affirmative to any of these questions, the homework is worth assigning. Can the goals of the curriculum and her instruction be achieved through some other means? If so, then there is no need to assign homework.  However, if there is no homework, we have to find more time for instruction in the day or reduce the allotted time for regular instruction to be redirected to practice, reinforcement, and reflection.  Both situations are costly.  Therefore, we should always look for ways to improve homework compliance.

Composition of Homework
Most teachers assign homework at the end of each section in the book: “OK, now do problems 1-25 on page ____.” Does this work for students? Not based on what I have seen and heard in my 56 years as a mathematics educator. To help students develop competence and confidence in math, teachers should be concerned with the quality of problems they assign in the classroom and for homework rather than the quantity.

Most mathematics assignments (homework as well as practice activities) consist of a group of problems requiring the same strategy. For example, a lesson on the quadratic formula is typically followed by a block of problems requiring students to use that formula, which means that students know the strategy before they read the problem. Most times, they do not even read the instructions before solving a problem. Problem sets made up of only one kind of problem deny students the chance to practice choosing a strategy—that means thinking about the problems (reflection). When faced with a mix of types of problems on an exam, such students find themselves unprepared. These classroom or homework problem sets are called blocked assignments. The grouping of problems by strategies is common in a majority of practice problems in most mathematics textbooks.

The framers of CCSSM (2010), recommend thatstudents must learn to choose an appropriate strategy when they encounter a problem. Blocked assignments deny such opportunities. For example, if a lesson on the Pythagorean theorem is followed by a group of problems requiring the Pythagorean theorem, students apply it before reading each problem. If all the problems for practice are direct application of the Pythagorean formula (a2+ b2 = c2, where a and b are the legs of a right triangle and c is the hypotenuse), then this direct “blocked” practice is a practice in algebraic manipulation, not a practice in understanding and applying an important geometrical result about right triangles and its role in higher mathematics.

An alternative approach to practice is when different kinds of problems—varying concepts, procedures, and language, appear in an interleaved order (mixed and uncategorized) problems. Such problem sets require students to choose the strategy on the basis of the problem itself. Such problem sets are also referred to as distributed or spiraled practice. For example, consider the problem:

A bug flies 6 meters east and then flies 14 meters north.

Her starting point is at point A and her final destination is represented by a point B, represent her flight by a diagram on the coordinate plane. How far, in terms of tenth of a meter, is the bug from where it started? Give reasons for your choice of solution approach. How much distance did it travel? Why are these two distances different? (No calculators)

This problem is ultimately solved by using the Pythagorean theorem. The distance travelled by the bug is different than the distance between points A and B—the hypotenuse of the right triangle, they drew, with sides 6m and 14m. To find the length of the hypotenuse, they used the formula:

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 1.48.51 PM

The bug flew 20 m to reach point B and the distance between A and B is about 15.3m.

In this problem, students first draw a diagram. The diagram suggests a strategy. Then, they choose a strategy (Pythagorean theorem) to apply and then they execute the strategy.

The choice of strategy means that a student is observing a pattern (mathematics is the study of patterns), recalling a theorem or formula suggested by the situation (learning is the residue of experiences and recall shows its presence), or noting the presence of certain conditions or language that suggest a concept, or a procedure (integration of learning). The choice of a strategy is dependent on understanding language, concept, and procedures involved in the problem situation.

Learning to choose an appropriate strategy is difficult, partly because the superficial features of a problem do not always point to an obvious strategy. For example, the word problem about the bug does not explicitly refer to the Pythagorean theorem, or even to a triangle, right triangle, or hypotenuse. This kind of assignment is called interleaved practice where a majority of the problems (practice, homework, assessment tasks, etc.) are from previous lessons, current work, mixed problems (new concept mixed with previous concepts and procedures) so that no two consecutive problems require the same strategy. Students must choose an appropriate strategy, not just execute it, just as they would be required to choose a strategy for a problem during a cumulative examination or high-stakes test. Whereas blocked practice provides a crutch that might be optimal when students first encounter a new skill, only interleaved practice allows students to practice what they are expected to know.

(a) Cumulative Homework
One-third of the homework assignment must be cumulative in nature. It should include representative problems from previous concepts and procedures. Whatever has been covered in the classroom during the year should find its representation in daily practice and assigned homework. In other words, what was covered in the months of September or October should continue to appear in the month of March or April. Such an assignment makes connections and achieves fluency. Consider, for example, the connections between multiplication and fractions, fractions and ratios, and equivalent fractions and proportions. Or, the relationship between algebra and arithmetic. There is such a close relationship between algebra and arithmetic that algebra is often referred to as “generalized arithmetic.” Using the distributive property in multi-digit multiplication procedure, combining like terms, applying the laws of exponents, and other rules and procedures are the same for algebraic expressions as they are for arithmetic expressions (e.g., long division for whole numbers and division of a polynomial by a binomial; short division for whole numbers and synthetic division for polynomials).

This part of the homework plays an integrative role in learning the material in the curriculum and provides opportunities for reflection. This part is to improve fluency and smoother recall of learned material. Familiarity and success on these problems emphasizes and meets the need for structure and success of the R-Complex and the limbic system. Another objective is to consolidate learning and connect concepts, procedures, and language. The topics, skills, and procedures mastered must be revisited on a regular basis. The memory traces of the learned skills must be retouched regularly because knowledge atrophies over time if not maintained.

(b) Practice Problems
Another one-third of the homework must be a true copy of the work done in the classroom that day. The objective of this component of the homework or practice problems is to consolidate the material learned in the classroom and continues the learning outside the classroom. It also helps to remain current in the material. If the teacher has covered the odd problems in the section of the book, then she can assign the even problems for homework.  When homework is assigned for the purpose of practice, it should be structured around content. Students should have a high degree of familiarity with the material assigned.  Homework relating to topics that have not been clearly understood and a level of competence has not been achieved should not be assigned. Practicing a skill with which a student is not comfortable is not only inefficient but might also serve to habituate errors and misconceptions, and high probability of non-compliance.

True mastery requires practice. But again, quality often matters more than quantity when it comes to practice. If students believe they can’t solve a particular problem, what is the point of assigning them 20 more similar problems? And if they can solve a problem in their sleep, why should they do it again and again?

The objective of this segment is to develop procedural fluency. Both fact fluency and procedural fluency can be developed in the class and through homework. Procedural fluency builds conceptual understanding, strategic reasoning, and problem solving. It involves applying procedures not only accurately but also efficiently and flexibly and recognizing when one strategy or procedure is more appropriate than another. To help students develop procedural fluency, teachers must therefore assign problems that are conducive to discovering and discussing multiple solution strategies. And once again, this doesn’t require elaborate problems. Sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing the learning potential within straightforward problems. Here’s a simple problem that generates rich discussion and helps students develop procedural fluency and number sense related to fractions: Find five fractions between 2/5 and 4/6. Describe your approach and reasoning for it.(This problem can be assigned as you’re practicing the ordering of fractions. It makes students think about all the ways of approaching it: common denominator, common numerator, converting to decimals, and comparing with a benchmark fraction such as 1/2).

You do not have toavoid using or assigning problems from textbooks. Make thoughtful, intentional choices that help students learn and like mathematics and feel good about themselves in the process.

(c) Challenging Problems
The problems in the last one-third of the homework should be (a) moderately challenging or (b) one or two-word problems from a previous topic. These problems are not mandatory but for those who want to solve these problems. Students can trade one problem from this set with two in other parts. These problems should add some nuance or subtlety to the problems of the type done in the classroom, or application of the concepts and procedures discussed in class during previous topics. Or, this component may introduce a related concept or procedure.

This component helps to prepare students for new content or to have them elaborate on content that has been introduced. Through these problems, even when students have demonstrated mastery of a skill, students can gain a deeper understanding of the math involved. For this to happen, teachers must assign the right problems and be prepared to scaffold students’ understanding. Here is one such problem that stretches students including those who have mastered or memorized the laws of exponents:  Which is greater: 240 + 240or 250 ? Can you prove your assertion?  Assign problems students are likely to mess up, and then help them learn from their mistakes so that they don’t make the same mistakes again. Mistakes make us learn more. Do not prevent students’ mistakes, prepare them for learning through them. Discuss student mistakes, misconceptions, and lack of understanding them in class. Help them to find mistakes and their causes. When they do make a mistake, give a counter example and create cognitive dissonance in their minds.

The problems, in this section, become the starting point for the next day’s lesson. In that sense, they are a kind of preview of the next lesson. For example, a teacher might assign homework to have students begin thinking about the concept of division prior to systematically studying it in class.  Similarly, after division of whole numbers has been studied in class, the teacher might assign homework that asks students to elaborate on what they have learned and how this will extend division of whole numbers by simple fractions.

In both situations, it is not necessary for students to have an in-depth understanding of the content. The objective of these problems is to further the learning. It doesn’t matter if students do not solve any of the problems from this part of the homework as it will become the introduction to the next lesson. This part of the homework is to challenge the student and should be of a moderate level of novelty. It might invite participation from other members of the family. These problems are assigned so that students who need a challenge get it. These problems satisfy the needs of the neocortex.

Every quiz, every test, and examination are set from the problems (or a very close replica) assigned in the homework throughout the year.

Homework with these components is an example of interleave practice homework. The students take a while to warm to this new type of homework because it has been so long since they have actually seen how to do a particular problem. But once they get used to it, students like the new homework.  When they are reviewing the old concept or procedures, there is an aha moment — “oh I remember that.” This increases confidence and compliance.

This interleaving effect is observed even though the different kinds of problems are superficially dissimilar from each other. Interleaving of instruction and homework improves mathematics learning not only by improving discrimination between different kinds of problems but also by strengthening the association between each kind of problem and its corresponding strategy.

Interleaved practice has these two critical features: Problems of different kinds are intermixed (which requires students to choose a strategy), and problems of the same kind are distributed, spaced, across assignments (which usually improves retention). Spacing and choosing strategies improves learning of mathematics and performance on delayed tests of learning.

The interleaving of different kinds of mathematics problems improves students’ ability to distinguish between different kinds of problems. Students cannot learn to pair a particular kind of problem with an appropriate strategy unless they can first distinguish that kind of problem from other kinds and interleaved assignments provide practice to learn this discrimination. In other words, solving a mathematics problem requires students not only to discriminate between different kinds of problems but also to associate each kind of problem with an appropriate strategy, and interleaving improves both skills. Aside from improved discrimination, interleaving strengthens the association between a particular kind of problem and its corresponding strategy. The abilities to discriminate and associate strategies are critical skills for doing well on cumulative examinations, such as standardized tests, SAT, achievement tests of different kinds. Since most of these examinations are cumulative and different kinds of problems are organized in it, students need to have mastered the critical skill of discriminating between the different types of problems.

Research on error analysis showsthat the majority of test errors take place when students have practiced using the blocked assignments but much fewer when they have practiced interleaved conditions. The errors occur because students, in blocked practices, are accustomed to choosing strategies corresponding to the assignments; they have learned identifying strategies in isolation, so when they encounter the problems in combination they mix them up. Through practice in interleaving situations, fewer errors are possible because interleaving improves students’ ability to discriminate one kind of problem from another and discriminate one kind of strategy from another.

Blocked assignments often allow students to ignore the features of a problem that indicate which strategy is appropriate, which precludes the learning of the association between the problem and the strategy.Blocked problems also lack subtleties and nuances. Blocked practice allows students to focus only on the execution of the strategy, without having to associate the problem with its strategy.

Helping students develop the discipline of completing homework is key to becoming independent and lifelong learners. Ifa student is not able to complete the homework on the first try, the teacher should ask the student to complete it after the material has been covered in the class. Although the teacher may collect work to record students’ progress, it should not detract from the responsibility given to the student for successful completion of all problems.

CCSS (2010)
OECD (2009)
OECD (2012)

Role of Homework and Achievement

Mathematics Education Workshop Series with Professor Mahesh Sharma – Spring 2018

fig 1

Don’t miss these highly interactive day workshops with Professor Mahesh Sharma!

Several professional national groups, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and the Institute for Educational Sciences, in particular, have concluded that all students can learn mathematics and most can succeed through Algebra 2. However, the abstractness and complexity of algebraic concepts and missing precursor skills and understandings-number conceptualization, arithmetic facts, place value, fractions, and integers may be overwhelming to many students and teachers.

Being proficient at arithmetic is certainly a great asset when we reach algebra; however, how we achieve that proficiency can also matter a great deal. The criteria for mastery, Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) – sets for arithmetic for early elementary grades are specific: students should have (a) understanding (efficient and effective strategies), (b) fluency, and (c) applicability and will ensure that students form strong, secure, and developmentally appropriate foundations for the algebra that students learn later. The development of those foundations is assured if we implement the Standards of Mathematics Practices (SMP) along with the CCSSM content standards.

In these workshops, we provide strategies, understanding and pedagogy that can help teachers achieve these goals.

Dyscalculia and Other Mathematics Difficulties
Who Should Attend:
For K through grade 11 teachers (regular and special educators)
When: March 30, 2018
Workshop Description:
In this workshop, participants will learn (a) why learning problems in mathematics (e.g., dyscalculia, etc.) occur, (b) how children learn mathematics, (c) what are effective methods of teaching mathematics? and (d) how to fill gaps in mathematics learning.
Cost: $49.00 Includes Breakfast, Lunch and Materials

Number Concept, Numbersense, and Numeracy, Part One
Who Should Attend:
For K through grade 2 teachers, special educators and interventionists
When: April 13, 2018
Workshop Description:
Number concept is the foundation of arithmetic. Ninety-percent of students who have difficulty in arithmetic have not conceptualized number concept. In this workshop we help participants how to teach number concept effectively. This includes number decomposition/recomposition, visual clustering, and a new innovative concept called “sight facts.”
Cost: $49.00 Includes Breakfast, Lunch and Materials

Number Concept, Numbersense, and Numeracy, Part Two
Who Should Attend:
For K through grade 3 teachers, special educators and interventionists
When: May 11, 2018
Workshop Description:
According to Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M), by the end of second grade, children should master the concept of Additive Reasoning (the language, concepts and procedures of addition and subtraction). The mastery means (a) understanding, fluency, and applicability. In this workshop, the participants  learn effective, efficient, and elegant ways of achieving this with their children.
Cost: $49.00 Includes Breakfast, Lunch and Materials

How to Teach Fractions Effectively
Who Should Attend:
Grade 3 through grade 9 teachers and special educators
When: May 18, 2018
Workshop Description:
According to Common Core State Standards in mathematics (CCSS-M), by the end of sixth grade, children should master the concept of Proportional Reasoning (the language, concepts and procedures ratio and proportion). The concepts of ratio and proportion are dependent on the mastery of the concept of fractions. The mastery means (a) understanding, fluency, and applicability of fractions and operations on them. In this workshop, the participants will learn effective, efficient, and elegant ways of achieving the concept of fractions and multiplication and division of fractions and help their children achieve that.
Cost: $49.00 Includes Breakfast, Lunch and Materials

Arithmetic to Algebra: How to Develop Algebraic Thinking
Who Should Attend:
Grade 4 through grade 9 teachers
When: May 25, 2018
Workshop Description:
According to CCSS-M, by the end of eighth-grade, students should acquire algebraic thinking. Algebra is a gateway to higher mathematics and STEM fields. Algebra acts as a glass ceiling for many children. From one perspective, algebra is generalized arithmetic. Participants learn how to extend arithmetic concepts to algebraic concepts and procedures effectively and efficiently. Algebraic thinking is unique and abstract and to achieve this, thinking students need to engage in cognitive skills that are uniquely needed for algebraic thinking. In this workshop we look at algebra from both perspectives: (a) Generalizing arithmetic thinking and (b) developing cognitive and mathematical skills to achieve algebraic thinking.
Cost: $49.00 Includes Breakfast, Lunch and Materials

Dyscalculia and Other Mathematics Difficulties
Who Should Attend:
For K through grade 11 teachers (regular and special educators)
When: June 8, 2018
Workshop Description:
In this workshop, participants will learn (a) why learning problems in mathematics (e.g., dyscalculia, etc.) occur, (b) how children learn mathematics, (c) what are effective methods of teaching mathematics? and (d) how to fill gaps in mathematics learning.
Cost: $49.00 Includes Breakfast, Lunch and Materials. Registration, workshop hours,  location, and parking please call: Anne Miller at 508.626.4553

PDP’s are available through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for participants who complete a minimum of two workshops together with a two page reflection paper on cognitive development.


FSU | Office of Continuing Education | 508.626.4553

Mathematics Education Workshop Series with Professor Mahesh Sharma – Spring 2018

How To Improve Numbersense: Decomposition/Recomposition Part Two

Mathematics could well be defined as the study of number and shape. And measurement connects shape and number. So, to learn, appreciate, and marvel at the beauty, power and reach of mathematics, one should first understand number and shape.

Developing the Concepts and Skills of Numbersense
Improving numbersense in children involves mastering the component skills and at the same time developing the ability to integrate them. Integration takes place when they apply skills in meaningful situations in efficient ways. Mastering component skills means developing

(a) Number concept,

(b) Arithmetic facts, and

(c) Place value.

Mastery of any mathematics concept, skill, or procedure means that the child has (a) understanding, (b) efficient strategies for arriving at it, (c) fluency (i.e., an arithmetic fact should be answered in 2 seconds or less orally and 3 seconds or less in writing), and, (d) can apply it in problem solving contextually.

Number Concept
To achieve fluency in reading with comprehension, a child needs to acquire a set of concepts and skills:

  • Mastering the alphabet,
  • Acquiring a large collection of sight words,
  • Understanding and acquiring phonemic awareness,
  • Relying on sight words and phonemic awareness (learning to decode an unfamiliar word by chunking it into familiar, manageable sounds, and, then blending these sounds them into reading that word).

This process is successfully achieved when a knowledgeable and sympathetic adult helps the child to practice the component skills.

In the early stages of the reading process the mastery of two key component concepts—a robust sight vocabulary and understanding of phonemic awareness, practiced with adults’ guidance help children to become independent readers.

Similarly, in achieving early fluency in numbersense, the key concepts/skills relate to number concept are:

Numberness: This is the process of integrating by
a. Identifying a collection of objects (e.g., a cluster of objects) by visually scanning it,
b. Associating the collection to an orthographic image, and,
c. Calling the name of the orthographic image and the collection by the name of the number. Essentially, it means assigning a symbol to the quantity represented by the cluster of objects.

Decomposition/recomposition: This means seeing a number as made up of component smaller numbers (e.g., visually recognizing a cluster of objects as a union of sub-clusters and vice-versa—the cluster of five objects contains in it a cluster of three objects and two objects), and

Sight Facts: Using the visual decomposition/recomposition process one sees a number is made up of two smaller numbers (i.e., 5 is 2 and 3). A sight fact is like a sight word. These are called sight facts as the fluency of these facts is arrived by constant visual exposures just as in sight words.[1] Thus, one achieves the mastery of 45 sight facts (See Figure 3).

By the help of numberness, sight facts, making ten, teens’ numbers, and decomposition/ recomposition, one can develop any addition fact efficiently and effectively and then with usage one can master it.

For example, to derive the addition fact: 8 + 6

8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 (using sight facts of 8 and then of 10)

= 10 + 4 = 14 (knowing the teens numbers); or,

8 + 6 = 4 + 4 + 6 (using the sight facts of 8 and then of 10)

= 4 + 10 = 14 (knowing the teens numbers), or,

8 + 6 = 2 + 6 + 6 (knowing sight facts of 8)

= 2 + 12 (knowing double of 6)

= 14 (knowing sight facts of 4, and teens numbers); or

8 + 6 = 8 + 8 –2 (knowing sight facts of 8)

= 16 –2 (knowing doubles of 8)

= 14 (knowing teens numbers); or

8 + 6 = 7 + 1 + 6 (knowing sight facts of 8)

= 7 + 7 (knowing doubles of 7)

= 14 (knowing double of 7).

It is important that children derive these facts in several ways to develop flexibility of thought, fluency, applicability, and deeper understanding.

Similarly, one can derive a subtraction fact: 17 – 9 = 10 + 7 – 9 = 1 + 7 = 8; etc.

Developing the Concept of “Numberness”
When we look at the following visual cluster card representing 5, we can see the four sight facts of 5.

fig 1

Figure 1

By visual observation of the above VC CardTM for number 5, the child forms the image of the number 5 as five one’s (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1), a figure (orthographic representation, 5), as a visual cluster (as in above figure), and its relationship with other numbers (by decomposition/re-composition of the visual cluster) and understands the number 5 as 4 + 1; 3 + 2; 2 + 2 + 1. The integration of these component skills indicates that the child has acquired the concept of numberness (in this particular case the “fiveness”)

Decomposition/Recomposition of Number
Decomposition/recomposition is to numbersense as phonemic awareness and phonological sensitivity is to the reading process. Individuals with an understanding of decomposition/recomposition are able to relate and connect numbers with each other. In the absence of decomposition/recomposition, children use inefficient and laborious strategies like counting one number after the other or both the numbers. With decomposition/recomposition, they can relate numbers better and arrive at novel and efficient strategies.

Children learn decomposition/recomposition by seeing patterns of arrangements of objects as in dominoes, dice, playing cards, Rek-n-Rek, Ten-Frame, etc. However, it is best achieved through the use of Visual Cluster Cards and Cuisenaire rods. For example, breaking (decomposing) the cluster into two sub-clusters of 2 and 3; 1 and 4 and derive the relationships: the four addition facts 5 = 1 + 4 = 2 + 3 = 3 + 2 = 4 + 1 are called sight facts of 5 (See Figure 2).

fig 2

                                   Figure 2

Just as sight words are learned by visual exposure and repetition, these number relationships are sight facts, which are also taught through visual exposure and oral repetition. The repetition should take place first systematically and then these sight facts should be practiced and recalled at random by asking a range of questions.

1 + 4 = ?   2 + 3 =?   3 + 2 = ?   4 + 1 = ?
5 = 1 + ?   5 = 2 + ?   5 = 3 + ?   5 = 4 + ?

1 + what number = 5. 4 + 1 = ? What two numbers make 5? What number + 3 is 5? Etc.

Once children have mastered the sight facts of a number orally, the teacher should ask them to write them systematically.

 1 + 4 = 5, 4 + 1 = 5; 5 = 1 + 4, 5 = 4 + 1
2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 2 = 5; 5 = 2 + 3, 5 = 3 + 2

This process should be repeated for the first ten counting numbers.

Thus knowing a number means an ability to write the number, use it as a count, recognize the visual cluster and its component clusters as smaller numbers that make the number. This is true for all ten numbers. They should be able to see and 45 sight facts for the first ten counting numbers. The 45 addition sight facts are:

fig 3

Without the idealized visual image of these numbers as clusters and the decomposition/ recomposition process, children have difficulty in developing fluency in number relationships. Most dyscalculics and many underachievers in mathematics have not learned number concept in this proper form.

An effective method of developing the number concept and the sight facts is using Visual Cluster Cards.[2] This process can begin with dominoes, dice, and other such materials that aid in forming these cluster patterns for numbers in the mind’s eye. However, the prolonged use of counting objects delays this automatization process.

Cuisenaire rods and Visual Cluster Cards are efficient tools for developing, extending, and reinforcing the decomposition/ recomposition of numbers achieved through the color and length of the C-rods and visual cluster patterns respectively. Using Cuisenaire rods, for example, the number 10 can be shown as the combinations of two numbers as follows.

fig 4

The above arrangement can be summarized into the 9 sight facts of number 10 using decomposition/recomposition.

10 = 9 + 1 = 1 + 9
10 = 8 + 2 = 2 + 8
10 = 7 + 3 = 3 + 7
10 = 4 + 6 = 6 + 4
10 = 5 + 5

The same process is used for finding the sight facts for other numbers: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9; sight facts relate to only these numbers.

Once children have formed these combinations, the teacher helps them to make these combinations fluent. Both Visual Cluster Cards and Cuisenaire rods help children to create visual images of these decompositions and help in acquiring fluency. Number concept is the beginning of the development of numbersense.

How to Begin Teaching Subtraction Sight Facts
Once children have mastered the addition sight facts, they can easily learn the related subtraction sight facts. For example, beginning with the visual image of a number as in Figure 1 (here the number is 5) and then using the process presented in Figure 2, one can derive the sight facts related to number 5. The teacher shows the card representing number 5 (Figure 1).

Teacher: Look at the number of objects on this card?
Children: Five.
Then, she covers a sub-cluster of the cluster of five objects. (See Figure 2).
Teacher: I hid some objects on the cards. How many pips on the card are hiding?
Children: Two.
Teacher: Great! Look at the card, now. How many objects are showing?
Children: Three.
Teacher: We will read this as: 5 take away 2 is 3. We write this fact as: 5—2 = 3.
She repeats this process for other sub-clusters of 5 and derives the subtraction facts of 5. These are:

5 – 1 = 4, 5—4 = 1; 5 – 2 = 3, 5—3 = 4.

The process is repeated for other numbers and all the subtraction sight facts are mastered with practice.

[1] See an earlier post on Sight Facts and Sight Words on this blog and also Sharma (2015) Numbersense a Window to Dyscalculia in The International Handbook on Dyscalculia (Steve Chinn-Editor)

[2] Visual Cluster CardsTM is a deck of sixty cards representing the ten counting numbers in multiple forms of clusters in four suites (club, spade, diamond, and heart). VCCs are used for teaching and learning number facts and later to learn the concept and operations on integers. They are used for playing Number Games for (Number, Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, Division, Integer, and Algebra Wars). Through these number games, students learn and reinforce arithmetic facts and achieve fluency.


How To Improve Numbersense: Decomposition/Recomposition Part Two

How to Improve Numbersense Part One

As we expect every child to read fluently with comprehension by the end of third grade, we should expect every child to have mastery of numeracy with understanding by the end of fourth grade so that they can access and learn mathematics easily, effectively, and efficiently. Then, they can appreciate the reach of mathematics, its utility, power, and beauty. To do so is to understand number, acquire numbersense and build the brain for fluency in numeracy and beyond. Through learning, practicing, and applying knowledge of the number concept, numbersense, numeracy, and mathematical way of thinking children will have access to higher mathematics.

When I ask teachers in my workshops, from elementary through high school and college, what their major concern is in teaching students mathematics, comments about numbersense are the most frequent:

  • Many of my students do not have “good” numbersense. How do I develop “good” numbersense in my students so that I can teach my curriculum at grade level?
  • I wish my students knew their facts. No numbersense!
  • How can I teach my grade level material, when they do not even have a sense of the place value of whole numbers? No numbersense!

The concept of numbersense is important for learning higher mathematics and also for day-to-day living. When I evaluate children from elementary to high school and even college students and adults, for learning problems in mathematics, most times it is the lack of mastery of numbersense that is at the base of many students’ difficulties in mathematics.

When I ask teachers: What do you mean by numbersense? Everyone gives his/her own definition. Numbersense is a key concept, but the meaning of this term is only vaguely understood. A term that is not well-defined cannot be effectively taught and assessed. Therefore to teach and to assess numbersense, it is important to know:

  • What is the meaning of numbersense? How do we define it?
  • How does it develop in children?
  • How do we develop and teach it?
  • What student behaviors must be evident when it is present?
  • What are the component skills necessary to learn and master it?
  • How do we know the child has acquired it? How do we assess it?
  • What are the levels of its achievement? How should it manifest at each grade level?
  • What is its role in learning other mathematics concepts?
  • What are the implications if it is not acquired?

Till these questions are answered in the teacher’s mind, the concept cannot be developed in children and assessed. A teacher’s instructional methodology for this concept depends on how it is understood. In the next several blogs, I plan to answer the questions posed above.

What is Numbersense?
From Kindergarten to upper elementary school, three major concepts form the foundation of arithmetic. They are also essential elements and building blocks in learning higher mathematics concepts, skills, and procedures. These are number concept, numbersense, and numeracy. Numbersense depends on the mastery of number concept, and its mastery is essential for the development of numeracy. The mastery of the concept and numbersense skills is the integration of three major components and skills.

  • Number Concept
  • Arithmetic Facts
  • Place Value

When students have mastery of these individual skills, they develop competence in numbersense and numeracy by integrating these skills.

Numbersense is a developmental and hierarchical concept. The type and level of mastery of arithmetic facts and place value varies from grade to grade; therefore, the concept and skills related to numbersense change and become complex and more demanding from grade to grade. The following are the non-negotiable component skills for the development of numbersense at each grade level. This does not mean nothing else other than these needs to be learned at these grade levels. Non-negotiable skills[1] at any grade level mean that other concepts, procedures, and skills can be mastered easily if these non-negotiable skills are mastered.

1. Numbersense at the end of Kindergarten

  • Mastery of number concept
  • Mastery of 45 sight facts
  • Place value (two digits)

2. Numbersense at the end of First Grade

  • Mastery of number concept
  • Mastery of 100 Addition facts
  • Place value (three digits)

3. Numbersense at the end of Second Grade

  • Mastery of number concept
  • Mastery of 100 subtraction facts (assuming the 100 addition facts have been mastered)
  • Place value (four digits)

The major goal of the first three years of mathematics curriculum (K through second grade) is to master additive reasoning: understanding the concepts of addition and subtraction, fluency of addition and subtraction facts, mastery of addition and subtraction procedures, applying these skills into solving problems, and knowing that they are inverse operations of each other. It means that: (a) given an addition problem, one can transform it into a subtraction problem and vice-versa, 23 + 12 = 35, 12 + 23 = 35 and 35 – 12 = 23, and 35 – 23 = 12, (b) when two numbers (10 and 9 are subtracted) from a given number (27), then the (27 –10 = ?, 27 – 9 = ?), then are being subtracted from a given number, then the remainder is larger from the given number in the case of the smaller number being subtracted from it (27 –10 17, 27 –9 = 18), (c) the difference of two number (51—29 = ?) will remain the same when the problem is translated by a number ((both numbers are translated by 2 units: 52 – 30 = 22 and 51 –29 = 22), etc.

4. Numbersense at the end of Third Grade

  • Mastery of number concept
  • Mastery of 100 multiplication facts (multiplication tables from 1 through 10)
  • Place value (at least 5 to 7 digits and ultimately any digit whole number)

5. Numbersense at the end of Fourth Grade

  • Mastery of number concept
  • Mastery of 100 division facts
  • Place value (any number of digit whole number) and to hundredth place

The major goal of the third and fourth grades mathematics curriculum is to master multiplicative reasoning: understanding the concepts of multiplication and division, fluency in multiplication and division facts, mastery of multiplication and division procedures, applying these skills into solving problems, and knowing that they are inverse operations of each other (given a multiplication problem, one can transform it into division problem and vice-versa).

Numeracy is both dependent on numbersense and aids in the development of numbersense; in this sense it is the culmination of numbersense. Numeracy is the ability and facility of a student to execute four whole number arithmetic operations correctly, consistently, and fluently in the standard form with understanding. By the end of fourth grade, every child should have mastered numeracy.

[1] See an earlier post on this blog on non-negotiable skills at elementary school level.

How to Improve Numbersense Part One

Stereotype and Its Effect: Math Anxiety and Math Achievement Part Two


What is Needed to Fight Stereotype?
In order to effectively minimize the effects of stereotype, eradicate the conditions that foster stereotype in institutions, and create environments where our children do not encounter these conditions will take time, will, and effort. For the moment, we need to focus on a few key factors. Here, our focus is only on the mathematics education related factors:

  • Classroom environment (physical, affective, cognitive, mathematical),
  • Teacher characteristics (training as a teacher, subject matter mastery, attitude—toward the discipline and learner differences, usage of language in communicating mathematics, questioning and assessment techniques, mastery of teaching and learning tools and their effective and flexible use, collaboration with colleagues and students, interest in learning, etc.),
  • Instructional strategies (knowledge of pedagogy, choice of instructional materials/models, selection and sequencing of introductory and practice exercises, amount of time devoted on mathematics instruction—tool/skill building, main concept, collaboration, practice, problem solving, etc.).

As educators and policy planners we react to situations where stereotypes are manifested. Then we seek easy solutions: we increase the number of female and minority faculty, provide mentors, and actively recruit students in STEM programs. These changes provide only opportunity for positive impact, but to have long lasting effect, they need to accompany significant changes in pedagogy, understanding of learning issues and the aspirations, assets—strengths and weaknesses of these students, the nature of classroom interactions, type of assessments, and the nature of feedback.

For example, even when the number of females and minorities increases in STEM programs, not enough students remain in the programs. It is because they may not have the information about what kinds of pre-requisite skills they need to succeed in these programs. How to acquire these pre-skills? What efforts should they make to succeed? They may not know how to be effective and successful learners. They may not know what types of jobs they can get if they succeed in STEM programs. When they perceive that they are not succeeding, they change course, programs, and aspirations for careers.

Many students change majors during their undergraduate years. The rate at which students change their major varies by field of study. Whereas 35 percent of students who originally declare a STEM major change their field of study within 3 years, 29 percent of those who originally declare a non-STEM major do so. However, about half (52 percent) of students who originally chose math major switch major within 3 years. This change of major is much higher than that of students in all other fields, both STEM and non-STEM, except the natural sciences. [1]

The challenge of keeping students—especially women and underrepresented minorities—is on the agenda of every policy decision at every level of government—local to federal and education—from early childhood to graduate school. According to studies, among the culprits of attrition in STEM programs are uninspiring introductory courses, a culture that can be unwelcoming, and, and lack of adequate preparation of students, specifically in mathematics. [2]

Learning Strategies and Stereotype
Differences in students’ familiarity with mathematics concepts explain a substantial share of performance disparities between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students and males and females. Many children, particularly girls and minorities, do not get exposure to quality mathematics content and effective pedagogy. Access to proper and rich mathematics language, transparent and effective conceptual schemas, and efficient and generalizable procedures is the answer to higher mathematics achievement for all students and fewer inequalities in mathematics education and in society.

When gender differences in math confidence, interest, performance and relations among these variables are studied over time, results indicate that gender differences in math confidence are larger than disparities in interest and achievement in elementary school. Research shows that confidence in math has become a major problem for girls and many minority children. It is one of the reasons women are vastly outnumbered by men in STEM professions later in life. Differences in math confidence between boys and girls show up as young as grade 2 and 3, despite girls and boys scoring similar marks. That trend continues through high school.

According to several studies, about half of third grade girls agree with the statement that they are good at math compared to two-thirds of boys. The difference widens in grade 6, where about 45 per cent of girls say that they are good at math compared to about 60 per cent of boys. This information is important for teachers as these attitudes are significant predictors of math-related career choices.

Early gender differences in math interest drive disparities in later math outcomes. At the same time, math performance in elementary school is a consistent predictor of later confidence and interest. There is a reciprocal relation between confidence and performance in middle school. Thus, math interventions for girls should begin as early as first grade and should include attention to developing math confidence, in addition to achievement. Even in preschools, the kind of games and toys children play with can determine the development of prerequisite skills for mathematics learning.[3] Confidence in learning is a function of metacognition and that in turn develops executive function and cognitive flexibility.

In elementary school, boys often utilize rote memory when learning math facts whereas girls rely on concrete manipulatives such as counting on fingers, number line, etc. And they use them longer than they should. Their arithmetic fact mastery puts boys in a better preparation for related arithmetic concepts (e.g., multiplication, division, etc.). These differences in strategies result in girls demonstrating slower math fluency (i.e. the ability to solve math problems related to arithmetic facts quickly) than boys. Both these methods (mastery by rote memorization and prolonged use of counting materials) are inefficient for arithmetic fact mastery for anyone. But, these inefficient strategies reinforce the gender stereotype for girls. Girls may blame their slower mastery of facts on being girls rather than the inefficient methods and strategies.

These inefficient models, methods, and strategies might bring higher achievement in elementary mathematics up to grade 3 and 4 (one can answer addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems by sheer counting), but they do not develop skills that are important for later concepts (e.g., difficulty dealing with fractions, ratio and proportion, and algebra as they are not amenable to counting). As a result, the average mathematics achievement of an average American is fifth-to-sixth grade level.

Clear understanding of concepts, fluency in procedures, and application of proportional reasoning (e.g., fraction concepts and procedures, ratio, proportion, etc.) are the gateway to algebra. Algebra is the main door to STEM fields. Students who do not opt for STEM related topics are the ones who have experienced difficulty understanding and operating on fractions. To become competent in understanding and fluently operating on fractions, students need:

  • Mastery of multiple models of multiplication (e.g., repeated addition, groups of, an array, and the area of a rectangle),
  • Mastery of multiplication tables (tables of 1 to 10),
  • Divisibility rules (for 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10),
  • Short-division (computing division with one digit divisor and multi-digit dividend without long-division procedure),
  • Prime factorization, and
  • Knowing that a/b = 1,for any a and b and b ≠0, and that multiplying by a/a (by a fraction whose value is 1) gives an equivalent fraction.

Skills listed above cannot be achieved by being proficient only in counting, memorizing and using manipulatives. These skills are acquired with having strong numbersense (e.g., mastery of number concept, arithmetic facts, and place value). Students have mastery of an arithmetic fact if they demonstrate:

  • Solid understanding of number concept and sight facts,[4]
  • Efficient strategies for arriving at the fact (e.g., using decomposition/ recomposition of number),
  • Fluency (giving a fact in 2 seconds or less orally, 3 seconds or less in writing), and
  • Applying it to other facts, mathematics concepts, and/or to problems.

Developmental Trajectory of the Competence in Mathematics
Strong numbersense (Additive and multiplicative reasoning and facts, place value, decomposition/recomposition of number)
to Numeracy (Ability and facility in executing four whole number operations, correctly, consistently, flexibly, and fluently in the standard form with understanding
to Proportional reasoning (e.g., Fractions, and all of its incarnations—decimals, percent, ratio, proportion, scale factor, rate, slope, etc.)
to Algebra [Seeing it as generalization of arithmetic ideas and procedures; arithmetic of functions and expressions; modeling of problems by algebraic systems (e.g., linear, exponential and logarithmic, absolute and piece-wise); concept of and operations on polynomials—with specific emphasis on quadratic and trigonometric; concept of transformations and their applications; systems of equations, inequalities, etc.
to Continuous modeling (Calculus) and discrete modeling (probability and statistics
to Higher mathematics
to STEM fields.

To be prepared for higher mathematics, all children should learn, master and apply strategies that are based on

  • decomposition/ recomposition of numbers (e.g., 8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 = 10 + 4 = 14; 8 + 6 = 4 + 4 + 6 = 4 + 10 = 14; 8 + 6 = 2 + 6 + 6 = 2 + 12 = 14; 8 + 6 = 8 + 8 – 2 = 16 – 2 = 14; 8 + 6 = 7 + 1 + 6 = 7 + 7 = 14),
  • flexibility of thought (able to arrive an answer to a problem in more than one way),
  • generalizable skills (moving from strategies that give the exact answer to efficient strategies that give the accurate answer easier and quicker with less effort and then move to strategies that are elegant—that can be abstracted into formal systems, and can be extrapolated), etc.

Inefficient strategies and simplistic definitions and models such as addition is counting up/forward, subtraction is counting down/ backwards, multiplication is skip counting forward, and division is skip counting backwards (e.g., counting objects, fingers, number positions on the number line, etc.) are inefficient formulations of these concepts. They are counter-productive to creating interest, flexibility of thought and confidence in mathematics because they do not expose children to the beauty and power of mathematics. Mathematics is the study of patterns, it has deep underlying structures, and it is based on the regularity of principles in its concepts. Its power lies in the collection of concepts and tools for the modeling of problems from diverse fields from anthropology to space and methods of solving them.

Teachers and parents need to emphasize that mastery of math facts and concepts is not just memorizing or arriving at the answer by counting. It is:

  • Deriving facts with efficient strategies, strong conceptual schemas, precise language, and elegant procedures,
  • Accuracy and fluency, and
  • Ability to apply this information in diverse situations (e.g., intra-mathematical, interdisciplinary, and extra-curricular applications).

When girls are encouraged to continue counting to find answers, they become self-conscious of their strategies and give up easily. This happens to boys too. But, in most cultures boys are given more support and encouragement. In addition, the stereotype that “boys are good in math and girls are good in reading” gives boys the benefit of doubt—they will ultimately outgrow inefficient strategies.

All students must understand that mastery of certain math concepts is important for any quantitative problem solving in most professional fields. To acquire efficient and effective strategies for number relationships and gain confidence in their usage is even more important. For example, students in early grades show high interest in STEM. But in later grades, without fluency in basic skills, lack of flexibility of thought and poor/or no conceptual schemas for key mathematics concepts, they tend to lose that interest. They also have difficulty connecting the diverse strategies and experiences in problem settings to related disciplines. For example, they have difficulty in applying conversion of units and dimensional analysis algebraic manipulations from mathematical setting to physics and chemistry. As a result, the sheer size of numbers and complexity of concepts and procedures they encounter in the STEM fields overwhelms them. As another example, a calculus course requires students to have an in-depth understanding of rates of change (e.g. proportional reasoning and its applications). The foundation of the concept should be introduced to students early in their mathematics education, and their understanding of it should evolve from middle school up to and including calculus. They should explore rates of change using numbers, tables, graphs and equations:

  • Investigate and model applications of rates of change, and
  • Explore how integrating concepts and technology appropriately enhances student understanding across grades.

When students are exposed to interesting and challenging problems from early grades and are shown clear developmental trajectory of each concept and procedure, they see connections between concepts. When students see the relationships between mathematics tools—strategies, skills and procedures and problems and where do these problems come from they remain engaged. This is particularly true about many female students as they are not sure of their competence. When problems are selected and their relationship with the STEM fields is made transparent, students get interested in these fields. Many students do not know what types of problems are solved in different fields. For example, in surveys 34 percent more female students than male students say that STEM jobs are hard to understand, and only 22 percent of the female respondents name technology as one of their favorite subjects in school, compared to 46 percent of boys.

Increasing STEM Participation is a Whole School Activity
Turning students’ interest toward mathematics and then STEM has to be a school-wide effort. Every educator (teachers—regular and special education, administrators, guidance counselors, coaches, para-professionals, etc.) should be aware of their own beliefs about math, gender/minorities, and their biases. For example, I have observed interactions between many adults (including principals) openly admitting their incompetence in mathematics to students. Here is a sample of interaction between a guidance counselor and two ninth grade students.

Female Student: Mr. Wilson, I am having very difficult time in my algebra I class. It looks like I do not have what it takes to be successful in Algebra I. I guess, I need to be taking the simpler algebra course or pre-algebra again. Could you please sign this paper for change of course?
Guidance Counselor: Let me see! Do you have a note from the teacher or your parents? Yes, algebra is kind of difficult. I have seen, over the years, more girls changing from this Algebra I class to easier courses. Have you tried getting some help from your algebra I teacher?
Female Student: I tried. I went to her a couple of times. It did not work. I will get a note from my father. He did warn me that algebra might be difficult. I will see you tomorrow.

Another day:
Male Student: Mr. Wilson, I am having great deal of difficulty in my algebra I class. It looks like I do not have what it takes to be successful in Algebra I. I guess, I need to be taking the simpler algebra course or pre-algebra again. Could you please sign this paper for change of course?
Guidance Counselor: Let me see! Did you do poorly on the first test? You know the first test in a course is not really an indication of poor preparation for a course. One has to get used to the new material and the teacher—her style of teaching and her expectations. Now do you know what the teacher wants? Have you tried getting some help from your algebra teacher? You know she is one of the best teachers in our school. I know she is a little demanding, but she is an excellent teacher.
Male Student: Yes, she is demanding. Not a little, but a lot.
GC: You should join a study group. David, your friend on your soccer team, he is very good at math. Have you asked him for help? He even lives near you. Why don’t you try the course for few more weeks, maybe till the next test and then you still have difficulty come see me. Meanwhile, I will talk to your teacher. By the way, before you come see me next time, get a note from the teacher explaining that you did try. And, I also need a note from your parents so that they know about your changing the course? I know, algebra is kind of difficult, but trying is even more important.
Male Student: I guess, I will give it another try. If it doesn’t work, I will come to you, again. Yes, I will get a note from my mother. My father wants me to have algebra on my transcript. He says: “It looks good for college applications to have algebra in eighth grade or latest in ninth grade. I will see you later.

Quality of Concepts and Quality of Instruction
Quality instruction has the greatest impact on student achievement and the development of a positive attitude about a subject matter. The major changes in student outcomes are obtained by teachers’ instructional actions. Generally, the premise is that teachers who implement effective instructional strategies will, in turn, help students use mental processes that enhance their learning. However, it is not enough to merely use an instructional strategy; it is more important is to ensure that it has the desired effect on student learning.

The opportunity to learn and the time students spend learning quality mathematics content and practicing meaningful and rigorous mathematics tasks assure higher mathematics achievement. Differences in students’ familiarity with mathematics concepts explain many performance disparities between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students and between females and males. Widening access to meaningful mathematics content—proper mathematics language, efficient, effective, and generalizable conceptual schemas, and efficient and elegant procedures—are the answers raising levels of mathematics achievement and, at the same time, reduce inequalities in mathematics education.

Poor learning environments and poor mathematics teaching create gender, race, and class disparities in quantitative fields, and the gaps begin to develop as early elementary school. Initially small and subtle, they grow into causative factors for low achievement in and avoidance of mathematics in high school, college, and even graduate school. They become most pronounced in quantitative professions such as university-based mathematics research and STEM fields. It is worth noting that women who drop out of quantitative majors do not tend to have lower scores on college entrance exams or lower freshman grades than their male peers. Females are leaving math fields when they are performing just fine; it is therefore worth considering that the reasons hardly lie in them, but in our educational environments that might induce them to leave.

Attitudes and Values
Various explanations exist for gender differences, beginning with small differences in elementary school to consequential differences in high school, undergraduate mathematics classes, advanced mathematics, and in math-related career choices. Below we summarize some of the factors that contribute to gender, race, and ethnic differences in mathematics and math-related courses and career choices.

Attitudes toward numeracy
Even from a young age, girls are less confident and more anxious about math than boys. These differences in confidence and anxiety are larger than actual gender differences in math achievement. The differences are shaped by the social attitudes of adults toward work, careers, education, and achievement. These attitudes are important predictors of later math performance and math-related career choices.

Early perceptions and attitudes formed at home and in early childhood classrooms form the basis of future attitudes toward learning. For example, many parents read to their children regularly and with interest. This instills the love for literacy and learning. During this reading, some parents do discuss the quantitative and spatial relations—ideas about number, number relationships, and numeracy, in the reading material. Many families play board and number games and with toys that develop prerequisite skills for mathematics learning [5].

From early childhood, traditionally, boys and girls play with toys and engage in games that are responsible for the development of different types of skills. Boys engage in activities that develop spatial skills and girls participate in games and toys that develop sequencing skills. For example, boys tend to be stronger in the ability to mentally represent and manipulate objects in space, and these skills (ability to follow sequential directions to manipulate objects mentally, spatial orientation/space organization, visuo-spatial representation, rotations, transformations, pattern recognition and extensions, visualization, inductive reasoning, etc.) predict better math performance and STEM career choices. In teaching mathematics, it is important to use those models—concrete materials, visual representations (diagrams, figures, tables, graphs, etc.) that develop these skills and to make up earlier deficits in these skills and aid in the development of numeracy skills effectively.

Attitudes thus formed about quantitative and spatial relations become the basis of later interest and competence in numeracy and its applications. By high school, these skills and related attitudes are well established. Personal aptitudes and motivational beliefs in the middle and high school have profound impact on individuals’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in college and later in choice of occupations and professions.

Attitudes toward work and professions
Occupational and lifestyle values, math ability, self-concept, family demographics[6] (particularly, financial and educational status of family), and high school course-taking more strongly predict both individual and gender differences in STEM careers than math courses and test scores in undergraduate years.

People’s life styles, values, attitudes, and interests and that of those around them influence gender and class differences about occupational and career choices and the role of work in their lives. For example, women tend to care more about working with people, and men tend to be more interested in working with things. This difference, in turn, relates to gender-gaps in selection of math-related careers and even within STEM disciplines—health, biological, environmental and medical sciences (HBEMS) versus mathematics, physical, engineering, economics, accounting, and computer sciences (MPEEACS).

Women’s preferences for work that is people oriented and altruistic predict their entrance into HBEMS instead of MPEEACS careers. For example, for the first time ever, women make up a majority (50.7 percent) of those enrolling in medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In fall 2017, the number of new female medical students increased by 3.2 percent, while the number of new male students declined by 0.3 percent.[7]

Women prefer biological sciences, where they represent 40% of the workforce, with smaller percentages found in mathematics or computer science (33%), the physical sciences (22%), and engineering (9%). To change this phenomenon active intervention and education are needed.

Role of Problem-solving Strategies
Mathematics is the study of patterns in quantity, space, and their integration. This means mathematics is thinking quantitatively and spatially. For example, in elementary school, understanding the concept of place value in representing large numbers is the integration of quantity and space. We are interested in a digit’s quantitative value in the number by its location in relation to other digits in the number. Similarly, coordinate geometry is a good example of this integration: each algebraic equation and inequality represents a curve in space and every curve can be represented by a system of equations/inequalities. Thus, to do better in mathematics and in subjects dependent on mathematics, one needs to have strong visual/spatial integrative skills: the ability to visualize and see spatial organization and spatial orientation relationships. Students who are poor in these skills, generally, have difficulty in mathematics. Those students who can do well in arithmetic up to fourth grade by just sequential counting begin to have difficulty later when concepts become complex (e.g., fractions, ratio, proportion, algebraic thinking, geometry, etc.). Then they blame themselves for their failures in mathematics – “I cannot learn mathematics.” “Mathematics is so difficult.” However, to a great extent, the reality lies in lack of these prerequisite skills and inefficient strategies.

The prerequisite skills for mathematics learning can be improved through training and intervention. Gender differences in spatial abilities and visual-spatial skills can be reduced and/or stronger compensatory strategies can be developed with effective interventions. The pattern of differences in the prerequisite skills for mathematics learning can be broken through these intervention programs. The types of games and toys children play, in early childhood, determine the fluency in these skills[8]. This means that one way forward is to ensure that all students spend more “engaged” time learning core mathematics concepts, solving challenging mathematics tasks, acquire prerequisite skills for learning mathematics.

Success in STEM fields depends on a person’s ability to apply efficient math strategies and exposure to diversity of problem solving strategies. For that, students need to engage in thinking both quantitatively—analyze ideas and strategies (deductive thinking), and qualitatively—synthesize ideas (inductive thinking). Thinking quantitatively means developing a strong numbersense and its applications. Thinking spatially/qualitatively means seeing patterns in numbers, shapes, objects, and seeing connections amongst ideas.

Research and observations show that in our schools boys tend to and are encouraged to use novel problem-solving strategies whereas girls are likely to follow school-taught procedures. In general, girls more often follow teacher-given rules in the classroom. It could be that girls are trying to fit in the class and they learn that these behaviors are rewarded. This tendency inhibits their math explorations, innovations, and the development of bold, efficient, and effective problem-solving skills. They need to explore and acquire strategies that can be generalized to multiple situations than just solving specific problems.

Such differences in learning approach and types of experiences contribute to gender related achievement gaps in mathematics as content becomes more complex and problem-solving situations call for novel approaches rather than just learned procedures. The rigorous use of the Standards of Mathematics Practices (CCSS-SMP)[9] in instruction at K-12 level and student engagement in collaborative and interdisciplinary research and internships at the undergraduate level can better prepare our students for higher mathematics and problem solving. Then, they will stay longer in STEM fields.

To be attracted to and stay in mathematics, students need to engage from a very early age with appropriate and challenging mathematical concepts. That means to experiment more and experience widely. This happens when they collect, classify, organize, and display information (quantitative and spatial); analyze, see patterns and relationships, arrive at and make conjectures; and communicate these observations using mathematics language, symbols, and models. These skills are central to a person’s preparedness to tackle problems that arise at work and in life beyond the classroom. Unfortunately, many students do not have a rigorous understanding of basic mathematics concepts (integration of language, concepts, procedures, and skills) and are not required to master these skills. In school, they practice only routine tasks procedurally that do not improve their ability to think quantitatively and qualitatively and solve real-life, complex problems—involving multiple concepts, operations, and meaningful ideas.

Mathematics also means communicating mathematical thinking using mathematics language, symbols, diagrams, models, mathematical systems: expressions, systems of equations, inequalities, etc. All these skills are central to a person’s preparedness to tackle problems that arise at work and in life beyond the classroom. The best approach to keeping students in the STEM fields is not only to give them skills but also to give them the “taste” of success in applications of mathematics in problem solving.

Collective Course Design
In 2011 the Association of American Universities started a project to improve the quality of STEM teaching at the undergraduate level. Among the conclusions of this project are:

Success is more likely when interdisciplinary departments take collective responsibility for introductory course curricula in STEM fields. For example, mathematics teachers should select application problems from the STEM disciplines so that students see connections between use of mathematics tools and concepts and the nature of the problems they can solve from other disciplines.

Along with interdisciplinary integration, there should be active collaboration between K-12 and undergraduate curricula, pedagogy, instructional strategies, and teachers. To improve the situation, colleges and universities should collaborate more, with K-12 schools, industry, and one another.

Applications of mathematics should involve its language, concepts, skills and procedures, not just formulas and procedures using calculators, computer packages, and apps. The objective of applications, therefore, is to see the utility, the power, and the beauty of mathematics. The application of mathematics fall in three categories:

  • Intra-mathematical applications: Applying a concept, method, procedure, or strategy from one part of mathematics to solve a problem in another part of mathematics. For example, solving a geometry problem using algebraic equations; seeing the study of coordinate geometry as the integration of algebra and geometry; understanding statistics as the integration of algebraic concepts (e.g., permutation/combination, binomial theorem), geometry (e.g., representation and presentation, graphing, and displaying of data, etc.), and calculus (differentiation and integration of probability functions), etc.
  • Interdisciplinary applications: Applying mathematics modeling to problems in other disciplines (e.g., understanding and explaining concepts and principles in physics, chemistry, economics, psychology, etc. using mathematical models and systems). Students should understand and realize that mathematics is used first for understanding and explaining physical phenomenon and then mathematics modeling for solving problems in natural, physical, biological, and social sciences. For example, understanding the airline routing problem using mathematics (linear and non-linear programming, and permutation/combination, etc.) and then extend the approach to modeling similar problems.
  • Extra-curricular applications: Applying mathematics in solving problems in real life through group projects, independent and small group research, etc. This involves applying combination of skills from different branches of mathematics in solving real life problems. The skills involved are: identifying a problem; asking right questions about the problem and solution requirements and constraints on solutions; defining knowns and unknowns; identifying unknowns as variables; identifying and articulating relationships between knowns and unknowns—functions, equations, inequalities, etc.; identifying already known facts relating to the problem and the variables involved, postulates, assumptions, results that apply in this situation; developing strategies for solving the problem; collecting data, classifying, organizing, displaying the data; analyzing data; observing patterns in the data; developing conjectures/hypotheses, and results; solving the problem; relating the solution to the original problem; conclusion(s); if needed rethinking/redefining the problem with modified conditions and restraints; etc.

The course planning, design and course delivery are, therefore, more than a sole faculty member’s task. Colleges and schools showing the most improvements in attracting and retaining students in STEM use teams of faculty, instructional-design experts, data analytics on student learning, administrative supports like teaching-and-learning centers, creative-learning spaces, mentoring and tutoring, and multiple means of delivery, and meaningful and timely feedback.

An approach that is attracting more students into mathematics is undergraduate research, where students engage in independent individual or small group research projects for a sustained period of time under the supervision of a faculty member.

To keep many more students in STEM fields cannot be the activity of an isolated individual or an office. To address the issue of female and racial achievement gaps university and school reforms must be campus-wide and embraced by all faculty members in order for women, black and Latino students to truly thrive.

Schools must also move away from forcing students of color into remedial programs before their participation into proper programs. Those students need to learn how to navigate the boundaries of the different social worlds that make up higher education. They have to learn how to “try on” the identities of the professions, to feel that they own them and have the right to play in them. This approach is in opposition to remedial programs, which lead people to think of themselves as outsiders, inferior, and not worthy of achievements. With remedial programs, they learn math as a compliance activity.

Achieving change takes total campus/school commitment, with the most powerful and knowledgeable people involved. Diversity offices can be supportive, but the power of the academy is in the hands of faculty. They can either motivate or demotivate a student from a course, program or degree. When everybody – faculty, staff, and administration, makes the success of students from different backgrounds a top priority on campus, only then can we make a difference.

Minimizing the Effect of Stereotype
Our main goal should be to create conditions so that stereotype does not exist in our schools, but that will take time and a great deal of effort. Concurrently, we also need to minimize the effect of current conditions that have been affected by stereotype. Here are some strategies for improving mathematics instruction for all and for making sure that children do not adopt the cultural stereotype that math is for a select few.

Tracking and Its Role
Placing students in ability groups, particularly minority and low performing female students, is the beginning of closing doors for meaningful mathematics and STEM. Some instruction grouping may be considered at sixth grade and beyond. But these groupings should be to accommodate interventions—both for gifted and talented and those who struggle, not in place of regular classes. From seventh grade on there may be two levels: honors and regular. However, each group should be provided challenging and accessible instruction that is grade appropriate and rigorous in content. The difference should be on time on task rather than in the quality of content or nature of instruction.

Teachers should ensure that each and every student has access to meaningful curriculum and effective instruction that is balanced with respect to rich language of mathematics, strong conceptual understanding using multiple models and representations, efficient procedures and fluency, diverse and flexible problem solving, and the development of a productive disposition for mathematics.

Each teacher should provide every student the opportunity to learn grade-level or above mathematics using efficient strategies and provide the differentiated and targeted instructional support necessary for every student to successfully attain this goal. However, some may need more and others may need less practice to reach proficiency. For example, to differentiate, all students should be asked questions appropriate to their level but on the same concept or procedure being taught in the class.

Differentiation does not mean making groups and teaching them lower or higher level mathematics. Differentiation should offer children exercises and problems at different levels but on the same grade level concept or procedure. Small groups and individualization can be organized for brief but frequent periods of practice, reinforcement, and deepening their understanding, but not for initial teaching and for long intervals. Students learn more from other students than from most teachers. Teachers can make this happen.

Teachers should affirm and help students develop their mathematical identities by respecting their mathematics learning personalities.[10] For example, each student falls on the mathematics learning personality continuum of learning mathematics processes. On one end of this continuum are students who process mathematics information parts-to-whole. They process information sequentially, deductively, and procedurally. They are known as quantitative mathematics learning personality students. They are very strong on procedural parts of mathematics. They need more work on language and concepts of mathematics. On the other extreme are students who process information from whole-to-parts. They look for patterns, relationships, and commonalities in concepts, ideas and procedures. They use inductive reasoning to process mathematics ideas. This is called qualitative mathematics learning personality. They are strong in concepts, making connections and applications. However, they need support and reinforcement in mastering standard procedures. Instruction should be to make sure that the needs of all students are met and complement their mathematics learning personalities.

To engage all students, it is important to be cognizant of different ways people learn mathematics. Teachers should view students as individuals with strengths, not deficits. This manifests when they value multiple contributions and student participation and recognize and build upon students’ realities and strengths.

Multiple Models
Teachers should provide students multiple opportunities to grow mathematically by providing:

  • multiple entry points and multiple models for the same concept (e.g., for multiplication—repeated addition, groups of, an array, area of a rectangle; for division—repeated subtraction, groups of, an array, area of a rectangle),
  • multiple procedures for the same problem (e.g., the quadratic equation: 2x2 – 5x – 7 = 0 can be solved by using algebra tiles, by graphing, by factoring, by completing the square, or by quadratic formula;
  • multiple strategies for deriving a result (i.e., the sum 8 + 6 can be derived as 8 + 2+ 4 = 10 + 4 = 14, 2 + 6 + 6 = 2 + 12 =14, 8 + 6 = 4 + 4 + 6 = 4 + 10 = 14, 8 + 6 = 8 + 8 – 2 = 16 – 2 = 14, 8 + 6 = 7 + 1 + 6 = 7 + 7 = 14, etc.), and
  • multiple expressions for and demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways—models (in words, symbols, tables, graphical, equations), forms, and levels (concrete, pictorial, abstract/symbolic, etc.).

Intervention and Remedial Instruction
We should provide additional targeted instructional time as necessary and based on the results of common formative assessments—make instructional time variable, not student learning. A teacher has four opportunities for remedial instruction:

  • Tool building—identifying the tools necessary for students to be successful in the main lesson and quickly reviewing them (orally using the Socratic method) before the main lesson (e.g., commutative property of addition, N+ 1, making tens, and what two numbers make a teens’ numbers before beginning addition strategies; rules of combining integers before solving equations; prime factorization before reducing fractions to lowest terms; differential coefficients of important functions before starting integration of functions, etc.).
  • During the main lesson—if during the lesson a concept is found to depend on a previous concept, briefly review that concept in summary form and write important formulas to be used in the new concept (e.g., divisibility rules during fraction operations; laws of exponents during combining polynomials; addition strategies during teaching subtraction strategies; important algebraic expressions before factoring: (a + b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2, (a – b)2 = a2 – 2ab + b2, (a + b) (a – b) = a2 – b2, etc.).
  • Individual and small group practice—at the end of the group lesson on a major concept, making small groups and helping each group of students to practice skills, concepts at different levels and helping them to practice previous concepts.
  • Intensive intervention—organizing and providing intensive intervention for select students (e.g., those with dyscalculia, learning problems in mathematics, gaps in previous concepts and procedures, etc.). This type of intervention should be provided by specialists after or before class and should be in addition to regular math education instruction (math specialists with mastery of mathematics concepts and understanding of learning problems in mathematics using efficient and effective methods, not by a special educator who is weak in mathematics).

Instructors and Pedagogy
Quality instruction goes a long way toward keeping students — especially underrepresented minorities and women in the STEM fields. But measuring educational quality is not easy. Assessing the quality and impact in STEM at the national level will require the collection of new data on changing student demographics, instructors’ use of evidence-based teaching approaches, deeper and meaningful student engagement, student transfer patterns and more.

Most experienced, effective teachers (who have a clear understanding of the trajectory of the development of mathematics concepts and procedures and how children learn) should provide instruction to students who need more support rather than the least trained and least effective teachers and paraprofessionals. Highly effective teachers have the skills to support students who may not have previously been successful in mathematics.  Effective teachers can make up almost three years of the result of poor teaching. Similarly, a poor teacher can nullify the gains of three years of effective teaching and even turn students off from mathematics.

Keeping Diversity in Math to Fight Stereotype Threat
An important way to address underrepresentation of minorities and women in mathematical pursuits is to create environments without stereotype threat (gender, race, ethnicity)—environments in which these groups are not concerned about being judged according to negative stereotypes. This can be done by mentoring where students are assured that:

  • They are respected. Assigning simplistic work just to keep students in a program is not respecting learners of any kind and is insulting to their intelligence. A mathematics teacher should have fidelity only to (a) students and (b) to mathematics; teach meaningful math to all children in meaningful ways.
  • The work should be challenging. Students should realize that although the work they are asked to do is challenging, it is accessible to them, they do indeed have the ability to succeed at it, and they believe that the teacher is there to help them succeed. The role of the teacher is to help them develop self-advocacy of their abilities, their strengths, and their usage.
  • They trust the mentor and her intent and capacity to help achieve the mentee’s success. This means that they should feel secure that someone is there to help them to reach their goals; they believe in the process that they will have a higher level of skill set as the outcome and they will increase their potential to learn.
  • Importance of learning skills. Student work should focus not just on the content of mathematics but on how to learn—planning, goal setting, organizing, gaining learning skills—developing executive functions, marshaling resources, self-assessment, self-advocacy, self-regulation, self-reflection, and seeking and using feedback properly.

The emphasis in this kind of mentoring is on stressing the importance of the expandability of one’s learning potential and realization of one’s goals—in a sense intelligence itself—students should grasp and internalize the idea of the role of the plasticity of the brain in learning potential and learning.

The intent of this mentorship is that at the end of these experiences (math courses, STEM program, etc.), mentees realize the idea that intellectual ability is not something that one has a finite amount of, and that it can be increased with genuine effort, experience and training. The role of the mentor here is more than cheerleading; it is helping the mentees to reach new personal heights in success and the attitude that they are capable of learning mathematics.

The increase in female representation in faculty and mentor roles, for example, has positive effects as long as they do not emphasize the uniqueness of their achievements and do not place undue pressure and importance on their mentees to view themselves as female mathematicians or scientists.

The more our female math students are exposed to women role models who can show them that not only can women “do math” but also that their feminine identities need not be viewed as a liability, the more they are likely to view math environments as places where they can belong and succeed. The same applies to other underserved groups.

Identity and Mathematics
The effects of stereotypes are far reaching. Research shows that stereotype threats induce undue pressures on women in the quantitative fields who are in the process of shaping their identities. Do women in mathematical arenas bifurcate their identities in response to prolonged exposure to threatening stereotype in these environments, or are women with bifurcated identities simply more likely to study mathematics? Research shows that because of the threat of negative stereotypes about female math ability many female math students (but not their peers in other fields) bifurcate their feminine identities. For example, in responding to stereotype threats, women in mathematics related fields often bifurcate their feminine identities, cutting off feminine traits they view as related to negative stereotype about female math ability and potential, and continuing to identify with feminine traits that they view as relatively unrelated to the stereotypes.

They report keeping fewer feminine traits (e.g., sensitivity, nurturance, and even fashion-consciousness) in order to avoid negative judgments in math environments. They foster fewer feminine traits even though these may not lead to negative judgment. Thus, the stress of engaging in such adaptation could constitute yet another deterrent to women’s persistence in quantitative fields. Although sacrificing fashion-consciousness as an aspect of one’s identity may seem trivial, sacrificing an interest in having children does not.

Similar pressures in identity formation are present on students from minority groups. Many minority students try to adapt to situations by sacrificing some of their positive traits. We need to understand that stereotypes affect not only others’ judgments but also people’s own judgments of their own competence. For example, new immigrants to the country respond to discrimination and stereotype by blaming themselves. They blame their lack of knowledge, skills—language, experience, and knowhow, and as a result harshly judge themselves. Some of them are negatively affected and others may succeed by paying a price in both cases. For example, first- and second-generation children of immigrants respond to these situations with skills and knowhow (e.g., Chinese, Indian, and East European immigrants children flock to STEM majors and want to succeed to fight discrimination); they do not fight against stereotype and place higher expectations on themselves. Many of these children feel a great deal of pressure to succeed.

To reduce and nullify the effect of stereotype organized response is needed on several fronts. There is need for both systemic and tactical changes; change in systems and people that inhabit these organizations as these effects are situational.  For this reason, the focus should be on both the people who are vulnerable to stereotypes and the organizations where the stereotypes exist (which applies to almost all organizations).

First, the change has to come in these organizations to reduce and then to eradicate these conditions.

Second, the affected groups need self-advocacy skills in responding to these situations. They need skills to achieve. They need skills in organizing and taking advantage of the positive situations. A good example of this is the METCO program in the Metropolitan Boston area. In this program, volunteer minority students (both male and female) from Boston public schools are bused to suburban schools instead of Boston Public Schools. These students get the opportunity to get a first-rate education in their suburban host schools. Moreover, the suburban students who realize the importance of this program and the schools who treat METCO students as their own also derive benefits. Many METCO students have gained skills from this program and many of them have gone on to become leaders in STEM fields.

As the METCO example shows, along with systemic change, there is need to work at the individual level. There is need for a mindset change on the part of individuals to actively gain skills to minimize the negative effects of stereotypes. For example, we can a priory determine a group’s needs and aspirations. Women’s ideas about themselves, their academic and career needs, and aspirations cannot remain fixed. Therefore, just focusing on organizations may not be enough – we also need to focus on the individuals.

Organizations—schools/colleges, social organizations, work places, and parents can do three key things to effect change.

First, they can control the messages they are sending by making sure there are no negative beliefs about any group in the organization.  For instance, an experimental study on the evaluation of engineering internship applicants found that the same resume was judged by a harsher standard if it had a female versus a male name. Applications should be judged by the same standard.

Second, they can make performance standards unambiguous and communicate them clearly because when people don’t know what the standards are, stereotypes fill in the gaps.

Last, organizations can hold gatekeepers in senior management accountable for reporting on gender, race, and ethnic disparities in hiring, retention and promotion of employees.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2017). Percentage of 2011 – 12 First Time Postsecondary Students Who Had Ever Declared a Major in an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree Program Within 3 Years of Enrollment, by Type of Degree Program and Control of First Institution: 2014. Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

[2] President’s Council of Advisors (2012).

[3] Pre-requisite Skills and Mathematics Learning (Sharma, 2008, 2016).

[4] Sharma (2015). Numbersense a Window to Understanding to Dyscalculia in An International Handbook of Dyscalculia (Steve Chinn, Editor).

[5] For the role of prerequisite skills in mathematics learning see Games and Their Uses in Mathematics Learning by Sharma. A list of games that develop prerequisite skills can be requested ( from the Center free of cost.

[6] Lost Einsteins: The Innovations We’re Missing by David Leonhardt, New York Times, Dec 3, 2017.

[7] Scott Jaschik (December 19, 2017), Women are Majority of New Medical Students. Inside Higher Ed.

[8] See Games and Their Uses by Sharma (2008). A shorter version of this book, Pre-requisite Skills and Mathematics Learning, in electronic form, is available free of cost from the Center. This document includes a list of games to develop these pre-requisite skills.

[9] See for the eight Standards of Mathematics Practices.

[10] See The Math Notebook on Mathematics Learning Personalities (Sharma, 198?)

Stereotype and Its Effect: Math Anxiety and Math Achievement Part Two