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

Stereotype and its Effect: Math Anxiety and Math Achievement Part One

We all see the world through the frame of meaning. We engage in activities we believe have meaning, value, and importance to us. Our desire for meaning is our desire for discovery of the world around us and our own strengths and limitations. The emotional act of discovering meaning is at the heart of everything we do everyday. Meaning is the greatest factor/driver of fulfillment. More than happiness, more than even achievements and profits, people want their lives to have value, and people who report higher levels of meaning are less anxious, healthier, and more satisfied of their lives. They are also less worried about others’ judgment of their values. In other words, they have the antidote to the effects of stereotype.

Ordinarily when others do not see value in our work, we may begin to doubt whether that activity is worth pursuing, particularly, in the stage before we have formed an autonomous self and acquired a healthy self-worth. However, when we see value in our work, we are not affected by the fear of value judgment by others and we persevere in the venture. For example, we learn because we see value and meaning in that learning.

We, as teachers and other adults in students’ lives, help provide value and meaning to our students’ learning. This becomes evident in the tasks we assign, the language we use in our teaching and the quality of our interactions with them, the type and number of questions we ask during teaching. It is also evident in the value we assign to their work through our assessments, the feedback we provide on their work (achievements and failures), and the type and nature of encouragement we give. Their learning is their work and through that they derive meaning. When they do not find the work in mathematics classes meaningful, neither on short-term basis (e.g., that particular class or test) or the long-term (e.g., the course or degree), they lose interest in that endeavor.

Therefore, teachers should have deep concern about the implicit and sometimes explicit bias in their teaching of mathematics and their classrooms. This bias is seen in the number of questions asked of different groups during teaching. When these questions are probing yet supportive and scaffolded, then they promote learning. The bias is also evident when there are low expectations. Setting high expectations is the mark of an effective teacher. They set tasks for them to de that are moderately challenging, but accessible. They assign projects that have meaning and purpose. They constantly monitor their students’ progress—their cognitive, affective, and psycho-motoric growth, in their classroom and their courses and program. They form groups that are welcoming, nurturing and collaborative, yet competitive in healthy ways. Their assessments are realistic with constructive, supportive suggestions.

A. The Problem: Math Stereotype and Its Impact
People’s fear and anxiety about math—over and above actual math ability—are impediments to their math achievement. Social conditions such as gender, class, race, and/or ethnic stereotypes about mathematics further compromise their achievements. The most prevalent are gender and gender stereotype that undermine female and minority participation in mathematics related activities.

Of particular concern are the low enrollment of females and minorities in higher mathematics (e.g., calculus, etc.) classes in high school and high attrition rates of undergraduates at colleges and universities from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. They drop out of STEM fields or fail to complete a degree in a STEM field.

The proportion of college freshmen intending to major in STEM fields has remained around 25 percent over the past 15 years. STEM degrees, as a proportion of total bachelor’s degrees have remained relatively constant at about 15-17 percent. The gap between the percent of freshmen intending to major in STEM fields and the percent of awarded bachelor’s degrees in these fields is a persistent and unwanted trend. Women, for example, earned about 18% of all computer science degrees and make up less than 25% of workers in engineering and computer-related fields. The number of degrees earned by African- and Hispanic American students is even lower. This is in stark contrast to the gains women have made in law, medicine, and other areas of the workforce.

While dearth of women and minorities in STEM fields is often attributed to lack of innate ability or lack of desire on their part, in most cases these are not the factors. Many attribute their decisions in part to the poor quality of instruction or lack of faculty interest in them, but the biggest factor is: gender and race stereotype that female and minority students do not do well on mathematics. Math stereotype and its impact is widespread.

Math Stereotype
The performance of high-achieving female math students on challenging math tests can be impaired by a social-psychological experience of stereotype threat. This “threat” occurs when a female student is taking a difficult math test, and the challenges she experiences with it bring to her mind negative stereotype about female math ability. Once female students identify with the stereotype, they feel they will be judged accordingly and their performance may confirm it.

Numerous experiments have found that the experience of stereotype threat is sufficiently distracting and upsetting to cause women to score lower on difficult math tests than equally skilled men. This threat works in the case of minority students as well. When individuals are confronted with a test or situation in which they are in danger of confirming a stereotype about their group, their performance plummets. For example, if one tells women that women generally score lower on particular math and spatial tests than men, they actually score lower on those tests than they would have had the stereotype not been made salient. However, when subjects are told that woman and men have the same ability on the particular test, the disparities in performance disappear and there are no gender differences in ratings of aptitude, assessments of competence, or interest in fields requiring that ability.

Research and experience of many math and science teachers and students alike show that stereotype has impact on learning. To understand and counteract the impact of this stereotype, it is important to understand this social phenomenon:

  • When and how gender, race, ethnicity, and class stereotype about mathematics are formed?
  • What is the effect of these stereotypes on mathematics learning, achievement and math anxiety?
  • What can math educators do to minimize the effect of stereotype and provide math education that does not allow these stereotypes to happen?

The development of math stereotype is gradual and insidious. The psychological constructs behind this phenomenon are:

  • formation of implicit self-concept—being aware of the presence of and personally experiencing stereotype in math learning situations,
  • forming attitudes toward learning mathematics and its role in life as a result of these, and
  • How and how much does the individual identify with math, as in “math is for me?”

This means to develop an antidote to this stereotype, our concern should be: Are we helping students to form healthy math self-concept?

Answers to these questions lie in a complex combination of social, cultural, and intellectual environmental factors. For example:

  • Many students still consider studying math by some people as a “geeky” activity—not feminine,
  • Many students have poor perception of the math major. They may not know how to study math. They may not know what is involved in learning math and related STEM fields. Why should one learn these subjects? What kinds of job do they lead to?
  • Many students have negative reaction to feedback on math test and assessments—they believe that it is a difficult subject—difficult to get good grades—it is either right or not—so precise.

Such perceptions and beliefs drive many people away from mathematics and come in the way of attracting and keeping females and minorities.

For girls, lack of interest in mathematics may come both from overt and covert culturally communicated messages at home, classrooms and schools, about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls. In many research studies, almost half of participants report believing that men are “better at math” than women—whereas less than 1% report that women are better!

The “math is for boys” stereotype has been used as part of the explanation for why so few women pursue STEM careers. The cultural stereotype may nudge girls, albeit initially quite subtly, to think, “math is not for me,” which can affect what activities (toys, games, hobbies, readings, projects, etc.) they engage in and the career aspirations they may develop.

The ethnic, race and class stereotype are also socio-cultural that African-American and Hispanic-American children are perceived to have lack of interest and pre-requisite skills in mathematics and the Asian-American children are expected to do well on mathematics is also socially transmitted in our schools. Children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, because of their better communication skills, are given the benefit of doubt that they may be better in mathematics as they take lead in asking and answering questions.

Stereotype Construct
One can observe or capture a stereotype behavior by measuring, for example, how strongly a person associates various academic subjects with either masculine or feminine connotations. The stronger the stereotype is, the faster the response to such questions. Researchers have examined three key concepts: Gender identity, or the association of “me” with male or female; math-gender stereotype, or the association of math with male or female; and math self-concept, or the association of “me” with math or reading.

When children are asked to sort four kinds of words: boy names, girl names, math words and reading words, children expressing the math-gender stereotype should be faster to sort words when boy names are paired with math words and girl names are paired with reading words. Similarly, they should be slower to respond when math words are paired with girl names and reading words are paired with boy names. As early as second grade, children (particularly, American children) demonstrate the stereotype for math: boys associate math with their own gender while girls associate math with boys.

On self-concept formation, boys identify themselves with math more than girls do. Even on self-report tests on all three concepts children give similar responses. Cultural stereotype about math is absorbed strikingly early in development, prior to ages at which there are gender differences in math achievement.

The discrepancy, in part, could be due to socio-cultural factors: home, classroom and school environmental influences, geographical variables—urban, rural, and suburban (e.g., the quality of teacher preparation in urban and rural areas is inferior compared to suburban schools), historical, teacher and pedagogical biases, assessment and recognition systems in schools.

The differences in math and science achievements of minorities and females have serious implications for the future careers of these groups and the size of the pool of innovative, research scientists. It has been a source of concern for educators everywhere.

Much of human progress depends on innovation. It depends on people coming up with breakthrough ideas to improve life. We have seen the impact of the invention of wheel, pulley, steam, penicillin or cancer treatments, electricity or the silicon chip. For this reason, societies have a big interest in making sure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to become scientists, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. It is not just a matter of fairness. Denying opportunities to talented people can hurt everyone.

If we do not do something about it, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and low- and middle-income children are far less likely to grow up to become innovators and inventors.[1] Our society appears to be missing out on potential inventors from these groups. We do a very good job at identifying and retaining children who are good at throwing a football or playing a trumpet. But we do not do even a satisfactory job of identifying children who have the potential of creating a phenomenal new product, service, invention, or a discovery. As a result, we all suffer—the whole society loses.

Stereotype and Self-assessment and Self-value
The negative stereotype about women and minorities can hinder their performance, depress their self-assessments of their ability, and bias the evaluations made by key decision makers. Combination of these effects can subtly influence the aspirations and career decisions, keeping them away from degrees and careers in STEM subjects.

If a person is exposed to a negative stereotype about a group to which she belongs (e.g. women, Asians, African-Americans, etc.), she will then perform worse on tasks related to the stereotype.  This is particularly problematic for women in the STEM fields, as there are many societal beliefs about how women do not have strong mathematical ability and about how men make better engineers and scientists.

This has significant implications for real-world situations; for instance, when women are asked to indicate their gender before taking the AP Calculus exam, it is enough to trigger stereotype threat and significantly suppress their scores  whereas it does not have the same effect when this condition is not there. Thus, more women would receive AP Calculus credit in the first year of their college program if the stereotype was not present. This demonstrates the powerful effect of negative stereotype on performance.

Negative stereotype can lower self-assessments of ability and leads individuals to judge their performance by a harsher standard. Beyond diminishing performance and self-assessments of ability, stereotype lowers their goals and ambitions. These effects make women less likely to enter STEM fields because they are less likely to believe they have the skills necessary for a particular career and less likely to develop preferences for that career.

Disconnect with Ability and Achievement
Cognitive, neurological, and educational research indicate that there is no reason why women, for example, cannot succeed in mathematically demanding fields, including advanced research, serious and useful applications, and innovation. Despite these conclusions, women and several groups of minorities still are underrepresented in advanced levels in STEM related fields.

On most international assessments, females outscore males on language: reading, literacy, and verbal skills usage in every country and continue to exhibit higher verbal ability throughout high school. On the other hand, although there are no significant differences between the performance of boys and girls up to fourth grade on mathematics, boys begin to perform better than girls on science and math ability tests beyond fourth grade. The reading gender-gaps narrow during the upper elementary grades, but gender gaps in math achievement and development of negative attitudes towards math grow. The possible explanations for these phenomena are:

  • there is no stereotype in reading abilities,
  • although small stereotype exists in mathematics abilities as early as first and second grade, children may not observe them overtly and may not have yet internalized their role and impact, however,
  • children begin to discern and act on these behaviors by age ten and above.

The results of the stereotype —low achievements and avoidance of math related activities, increase with age.

Similarly, this disconnect with ability and achievement is evident in the case of Hispanic children. For example, Hispanic bilingual children have higher level of executive function skills than their monolingual counterparts as preschoolers and continue to have this advantage even later. Whereas, executive functions (EF) are an important aspect of school readiness that have been shown to predict higher achievement in language, math, and science starting in the early years. But, by third grade many of them are doing poorly in arithmetic. This association has been found among children of different ages, languages, and socioeconomic statuses. These findings can help inform teachers and policy-makers that these children are capable of doing well, the only reasons one can give are factors outside of them. These social factors may involve low expectations, poor instruction, lack of support, and stereotype they experience.

Teachers’ Math Anxiety and Stereotype
Research has found that girls’ math achievement is lower if they have a female teacher who is anxious about math. This may be because the girls in such classrooms pick up on gender stereotype earlier. A large number of early elementary school teachers in the United States are female (>90%) and the percentage of math anxious individuals in that group is larger than average. Many of them may not understand the true nature of mathematics learning and the developmental trajectories of important mathematics concepts and procedures.

Arithmetic has been in use for such a long time that many concepts and procedures are taken for granted by most people and math anxious teachers may find it difficult to explain the reasons and concepts behind them. Therefore, many of them only emphasize the computational (e.g., procedures, recipes, short-cuts, mnemonic devices, and “tricks”, etc.) aspect of arithmetic rather than developing the language, conceptual schemas, and then computational procedures. They may teach only simplistic methods rather than focus on deep structures, patterns, concepts, and the true nature of mathematics. They may not realize that math is the study of patterns in quantity and space. For example, arithmetic is the study of patterns in quantity—number concept, numbersense, and numeracy; geometry is the study of patterns in shapes and their relationships; probability is the study of patterns in chance and possibilities; algebra is the study of patterns and relationships in variability; and calculus is the study of patterns in rate of change, etc.

A math anxious female teacher’s math anxiety has impact on girls’ math achievement through the process of girls’ forming perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs about mathematics (e.g., who is good at math early on through these identifications). Many a times, female teachers fail to observe girls’ novel strategies in math and do not encourage them. This may happen because they may not see these strategies as novel. However, it happens in the case of boys also, but boys generally persist in advocating for their strategies. Teachers with math anxieties may also have lower expectations from girls. They may justify and rationalize a girl’s poor mathematics performance with the belief that “girls are supposed to be poor in mathematics.” In addition, observations suggest that when boys and girls have the same math performance and behaviors in math classes, teachers perceive and express sometimes overtly and other times covertly that the boys are better at math. This “differential rating and mental evaluation” of boys and girls contributes to gender-gaps in math performance.

This is not to suggest that teachers are to blame for gender differences in math performance. Teachers’ views simply reflect those of society as a whole.

When math achievement of the students in math anxious teachers’ classrooms is assessed a very important phenomenon is observed. Although there is no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement and attitude about mathematics at the beginning of the school year, by the school year’s end, however, the more anxious the teacher is about math, the more likely the girls (but not boys) are to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.” This is particularly true about the girls with lower math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorse this stereotype have significantly worse math achievement than girls who do not and than boys overall. Thus, in early elementary school, where the teachers are almost all female, teachers’ math anxiety carries serious consequences for girls’ math achievement by influencing girls’ beliefs about who is good at math.

Research has been mixed about whether today’s children hold gender stereotypes about math at the same level as in the past. Children often report being aware of gender stereotype about mathematics, but they less often indicate that they believe the stereotype. Attitudes towards math may have changed as many parents and educators are beginning to take proactive actions about these matters.

Classroom Environments and Stereotype
Beyond math anxiety, other characteristics about teachers and classroom environments also have been identified as contributors to this gender gap. Students from middle to high school on surveys and interviews identify a math or science teacher as a person who made math, science, or engineering interesting to them. At the same time, many female students report the classroom environments not conducive to their becoming as successful math and science students. For example, many report being passed over in classroom discussions, not being encouraged to have high expectations of themselves and by the teacher, and made to feel inadequate and incompetent.

Classroom environments can be made to feel more female-friendly by:

  • helping students to develop prerequisite skills (sequencing, spatial/orientation space organization, pattern recognition and extensions, visualization, estimation, deductive and inductive reasoning) for mathematics learning in order to neutralize gender and socio-economic differences,
  • incorporating cooperative competitions, public discussion and sharing of their strategies, thinking and practices in solving problems,
  • teacher paying focused attention to achievement for all, and, in particular, on female and minority math achievement,
  • having high expectations for all and to encourage students to have high expectations of themselves,
  • using appropriate, efficient and universal concrete/visual models for mathematics teaching and learning and retiring them when the students have generated the language, developed the conceptual schemas, and have arrived at efficient and effective procedures,
  • exposing students to female and minority role models,
  • using non-threatening, non-discriminatory, and constructive assessment methods, and
  • using nonsexist, non-racist books and materials.

Stereotype threat may emerge even during everyday experiences. The performance of female students decreases with the stereotype threat, for example, when a woman takes a math test in a room with two male test-takers rather than two other women. Other researchers have also found similar reductions in test performance among women who, before taking a difficult math test, are asked to watch TV commercials that depict women in a trivializing ways, that is, in ways that are inconsistent with the stereotype about being good at math. This suggests that the experience of stereotype threat contributes to women’s lower standardized math test scores and to their decreased persistence in quantitative fields in multiple settings. Therefore, to stay in STEM fields and to be successful, they have to exercise a higher level of effort, energy—both psychic and cognitive. Classroom environment can play an important role in this.

B. Other Social Factors for Lower Math Achievement
Stereotype causes some of the math anxiety, particularly, in the case of many women and minorities. However, there are also other factors for the low participation by women and minorities.

Quality of Interaction and Stereotype
Some of this bias is also evident in the applications of mathematics to other disciplines—the kinds of applications we expose our students to engage. Minority students are not shown meaningful scientific applications, fewer girls are in robotic exhibitions and applications. Our choices of applications show class and gender bias in   exposure to extracurricular situations (i.e., for female and minority students the membership in clubs, math competitions, math Olympiads, etc.) are low. This minimizes and marginalizing the voices of female and minority students in mathematics education, higher education and later in the work place.

Children assimilate the stereotype exhibited by parents, educators, peers, toys and games, and the media and in turn, they may exhibit the same later in their dealings with others—classmates, younger students, and later as subordinates. To fight this, we should depict math as being equally accessible to boys and girls of all backgrounds by treating all students in the classrooms the same way—to helping them to reach their potential. We should help broaden the interests and aspirations of all our children.

To counter stereotype that students may bring to the classroom, teachers should always look for opportunities to promote positive gender and minority representations and give their students a broader perspective on their options and capabilities in mathematics and related subject areas. For instance, gender representation should not mean only showing what women can do but also what men can do in an activity that is seen as stereo-typically female activity.

Emphasizing that participation for females in STEM related fields is important may be the key to increasing the number of participants, but what is even more important is to demonstrate what are the skills needed to succeed in these fields and then how the skills gained in these programs will help them to find and get jobs in careers that they may want to pursue and then to succeed.

There is need for all teachers and specially the mathematics teachers, to educate our youth, particularly female and minority students, to understand what is involved in STEM disciplines and what set of skills can make them successful. In the world of information technology (IT), for example, that means that students should be shown directly how STEM educational tracks will help them pursue jobs in IT administration, software development, systems integration, product development, communication, and related fields.

Many middle and high school students are not even aware of what is involved in STEM related jobs. For example, surveys show that almost half of them do not even know anyone who has a job in STEM fields and 1 in 4 has never spoken to anyone about jobs in STEM fields. Almost half of them do not know what kinds of math jobs exist and almost 3 out of 4 do not even know what engineers do in their work. Almost 9 out of 10 of these young people think that people who study STEM subjects work at organizations like NASA, and almost half think that people with such backgrounds work for computer and Internet related companies only.

Only about 1 in 4 believe that people with STEM backgrounds might work for consumer companies like super-markets, non-profit organizations, insurance companies, banks, and entertainment fields, such as gaming.

To change the trend of women abandoning the STEM fields, is to re-brand and redefine the kinds of job tracks and careers that STEM education can lead to for students across the nation. Programs offering expanded educational opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics should be seen as the incubators where young people can delve into these subjects more deeply, while showing them and opening wide options for their careers.

Because of these misunderstandings and serious shortages of qualified candidates to fill STEM jobs in a wide swath of industries, employers, educators and human resource professionals should clarify what STEM entails and how widespread the job possibilities in these fields are. Companies seeking STEM workers, schools, teachers and parents can all contribute to making these shifts happen. They should visit schools to create interest and encourage students to put more effort in and develop positive attitudes toward these fields. Industry and STEM researchers need to explain these opportunities to students in depth, including clear information about what kinds of jobs and careers can be pursued with skills and degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.  They should share with them their education and their career trajectories.

Mathematics classes should be more creative so that students can get more engaged and interested in exploring a variety of STEM fields and careers. Teachers should invite business representatives involved with STEM related careers and decision making to their classrooms to discuss STEM careers and they should share the worker needs in STEM fields.

Stereotype and Course and Degree Choices
Gender and race differences are evident in course choices, degree options, and projects selected for internships and research. These differences specifically affect certain groups at the higher levels of math and science. This is evident in enrollments in majors in mathematics and computer sciences, in areas of research and innovation, and in fields of mathematics applications—modeling and problem solving. Females enter STEM areas at the undergraduate level, but many of them leave at the graduate and research levels. For example, men are much more likely than women to pursue graduate degrees, post-graduate research, and careers in STEM fields and economics.

Complex cultural, social, political, and economic factors contribute in the selection of majors of study and career choices for individuals. Reasons and questions behind career choices, wage gaps and the disparities in representations of minorities and women in some STEM require multifaceted answers. For example, professions based on biological and medical sciences have mostly achieved equitable representations of male and female, but mathematics, engineering, and physics have significantly lower female representations. This is also true in history, finance and accounting.

Despite higher percentages of females attempting to enter STEM fields, issues related to stereotypes in schools and higher education and discrimination in the work place continue to exist. These can create hostile environments and gaps in offering challenging and interesting opportunities, meaningful advancements, and adequate compensation increases in comparison to their male counterparts.

The inhospitable climate is partly a result of STEM field’s imbalanced gender and race ratios. For example, women make up only a quarter of employees and about a tenth of executives in the tech industry. There have, of course, been other male-dominated fields notorious for similar environments, including Wall Street and Madison Avenue. But, part of what differentiates tech is the industry’s self-regard, as a realm of visionary futurists and tireless innovators who are making many aspects of the world better. In many ways, the tech world does represent the future—it is defining the future and its contours from social interaction to how do we learn, live and work. It has attracted the most promising and creative mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. That should assure that they would have influence over the nation’s ideas and values for years to come. It’s deeply troubling, then, that many of these companies have created an internal culture that, at least when it comes to gender and race inequality, resembles the past rather than the future.[2]

Tech companies have been promising to improve their hiring of women and underrepresented minorities for nearly two decades. Hiring women, blacks and Latinos is apparently so challenging for these companies that the vice-president of diversity and inclusion for a leading tech company lowered the bar by saying that it is difficult find qualified individuals. Despite challenges, they need to redouble their efforts. They need to collaborate with schools, colleges, and universities.[3]

Investigations on sexism, racism, and ethnic stereotypes in STEM fields demonstrate the bias and stereotyping, and later it turns into the multi-faceted repression experienced by women and minorities. That forces many to quit these fields. For example, men in academia act as gatekeepers. People, by virtue of their positions, have the ability to keep members of certain groups from achieving their full potential. This gatekeeper bias has real consequences. Many female and minority scholars leave the field or they get so disappointed that they do not actively encourage other female or minority graduate students or younger scholars to stay in the field. Studies show that academic colloquium speakers are more likely to be men than women, even when controlling for rank and representation of men and women in the disciplines that sponsor the events. Men give more than twice as many colloquium talks over all (69 percent) as do women (31 percent).

The question is what measures can we take to minimize, root out, and create environments that do not foster such situations in future and then create the learning environments that anyone can be part of innovation, if they desire.

Mathematics as a Gateway to STEM Fields
In the spring of 1986, during a professional development workshop for the faculty of the newly established Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Noble laureate, physicist Leon Lederman introduced my workshop on mathematics learning by emphasizing that at the base of all sciences is mathematics. Mathematics is the key to the study of physics, physics explains chemistry and chemistry, in turn, is the basis of understanding biology. Physics and mathematics lead to engineering, whereas, biology and chemistry with the help of mathematics tools lead to understanding microbiology, neurology, and medicine. The base of the pyramid of STEM is mathematics.

Today, even academic fields such as anthropology, psychology, and history rely on mathematical modeling, for example, two to three decades ago, one would see a rare equation, graph or table in an undergraduate textbook in these subjects. Today mathematical modeling—quantitative and qualitative representations using variables, patterns analysis, graphs, tables, charts, equations, and inequalities are common in most academic fields. Of course, the organization and serious study of economics and business is impossible without high level of competence in mathematics, particularly application of mathematical modeling and processes.

STEM fields are the gateway to equity, equality, and major means of participating fully in society. Throughout history, in every century, the latest technologies have generated the maximum number of jobs, most wealth, and higher living standards. Technologies change and reorganize the social structures in a country and now internationally. With appropriate skills in the latest technologies one can be on the forefront of this change. With mathematics competence all sciences are within the reach of a person. Mathematics, thus, is the gateway to STEM and related fields. Mathematics teachers, at all levels, need to make access and equity as their goal in their interactions with students and mathematics.

Many math teachers and math departments in schools and colleges, in a very long tradition, have made mathematics the gatekeeper to many interesting fields. It started when Socrates’ Academy displayed a motto: “No one not well-versed in geometry enter this academy.” We, as math teachers, place hurdles in the path of students’ entry into mathematics particularly for those who do not have the appropriate preparation, attitude, or achievement. Teachers in STEM fields also traditionally view themselves as gatekeepers, choosing the elite students who deserve to be scientists, engineers or doctors — and discarding everybody else. It begins very early in school where rather than challenging all students to interesting problems we assign children to various groups according to ill-defined criteria and abilities.

We need to transform mathematics teaching (e.g., courses, programs, pedagogy, etc.) from a gatekeeper function to a gateway to more mathematics and STEM fields. The aim of math education should be to foster student empowerment—developing critical constructs of mathematics identity, agency, and teaching mathematics as a major instrument for social justice—for access. Our students should learn math as a tool for solving problems—both personal and social. For example, algebra in eighth grade, for many should be a civil rights issue.  Without mathematics competence, we create “third world” economies, living standards, and opportunities in the midst of the “first world.” On the other hand, fortunately, mathematics is creating “first worlds” in the midst of “third worlds” in many places, in several countries.

Current mathematics education often reinforces, rather than moderates, inequalities in education and preparation for life and careers. Effective mathematics education not only should moderate inequalities but should also seek to remove the structural obstacles that stand in the way of achieving equitable outcomes.

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

[2] New York Times, December 3, 2017

[3] Wong, Julia Carrie (December 31, 2017). New Year’s resolutions for big tech: how Silicon Valley can be better in 2018, The Guardian.

Stereotype and its Effect: Math Anxiety and Math Achievement Part One