We believe all children can love learning math.
To understand students’ mindsets toward math, we surveyed nearly 345,000 third through fifth graders and analyzed their self-reported responses along with their Zearn Math learning-behavior data.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of third through fifth grade students surveyed reported that they like or love math; however, there is a downward trend in feelings toward math as students get older. Irrespective of their feelings toward math, 93% of students believe that doing well in math is important.
Much of the change in mindsets as children get older can be attributed to a subset of students; students who struggle with math self-report a more negative disposition toward math.
When students learn with Zearn Math, they work through Independent Digital Lessons that allow students to learn and practice grade-level concepts with rich digital manipulatives, interactive videos, paper and pencil transfer, and personalized remediation. At the end of each Independent Digital Lesson, students demonstrate understanding in a portion of the lesson called the Tower of Power. When students get part of a question wrong within the Tower of Power, they receive scaffolded remediation at the precise moment of misconception and then are given the opportunity to try again with a new problem. If the student continues to struggle in the new problem, their teacher is alerted. We analyzed student learning behaviors and grouped students by how frequently they struggled in the Tower of Power. “Non-struggling” students were students whose teachers received less than one alert for every ten Towers of Power they completed during the 2017–18 school year; “Struggling” students were students whose teachers received more than one alert for every two Towers of Power completed. Each group included roughly one-third of the respondents in each grade. When we grouped students in this way, we found that much of the decline in positive math mindsets as kids get older can be explained by the views of a subset of students, those who are struggling with math. For example, 49% of third grade students who rarely struggled in Independent Digital Lessons said they “love math”—the same percentage of struggling third graders who said they “love math.” By fifth grade, however, the difference between the two groups of students is substantial: 40% of non-struggling fifth graders self-reported loving math compared to only 29% of struggling fifth graders. (See Figure 2.)
Struggling students not only like math less, they also report a more fixed view of their math ability. These trends are more pronounced as students get older.
Further, the group of students who struggled viewed their ability to improve in math differently than non-struggling students. Across all grades surveyed, students who struggled with Zearn Independent Digital Lessons were less likely to respond that they think they can improve their math ability in comparison to non-struggling students. (See Figure 3.)
There is a bright spot that emerges in our findings among struggling students in all grades.
When these students had completed three-quarters of their Zearn Math grade-level Independent Digital Lessons, they were more likely to report a belief in their ability to improve in math and a love of math.
In examining the students who struggled, we identified a subset of students whose mindsets about math resembled students who rarely struggled. Across all grades, as high-struggling students spent more time learning grade-level lessons with Zearn Math, they increasingly reported that they believe they can get better at math. Specifically, when struggling students had completed at least 90 Zearn Math Independent Digital Lessons during the school year, or more than three-quarters of their grade-level content on Zearn Math, 59% self-reported that they “definitely” think that no matter how good they are at math now, they can always improve. In contrast, only 52% of struggling students who had completed fewer than 30 Digital Lessons, or less than a quarter of their grade level content on Zearn Math, self-reported that they “definitely” think that they can improve. (See Figure 4.) As a comparison, 68% of students who rarely struggled responded similarly.
Similarly, struggling students in each grade who had completed at least 90 Zearn Math Independent Digital Lessons during the school year, or more than three-quarters of their grade-level content on Zearn Math, were more likely to report that they “love math.” For example, among the over 30,000 struggling fifth graders (who were the least likely to say that they “love math”), 36% of those who completed at least 90 Digital Lessons said that they “love math,” while only 27% of struggling fifth graders who had completed fewer than 30 Digital Lessons self reported a love of math. (See Figure 5.) This trend was even greater for students in high-poverty schools.
Encouraged that students’ mindsets about math can be improved, we are eager to continue evolving Zearn Math so that all students can love learning math.
Although the results of this survey cannot claim that completing Zearn’s Independent Digital Lessons causes a change in students’ mindsets, it is encouraging to see that students’ mindsets about math and learning are trending positively and can be improved. This is fundamentally important given the known association between positive math mindsets and above-average math achievement. The difference in mindsets between students who have completed the majority of the Independent Digital Lessons in their grade and those who have not may be the outcome of the Zearn Math student learning experience: the way students build understanding by learning in multiple ways; the personalized feedback and support they receive; the learning of math as big, connected ideas; and the embedded systems to build a learning mindset. However, it is also evident that there is still work to do to ensure that older students, particularly those who experience difficulty with math, remain engaged and motivated. We hope that we can effectively apply our learnings from this survey to evolve the Zearn Math curriculum and further our mission that all children love learning math.