A recent article in Forbes magazine showcases a series of infographics that highlight high school students’ views of math. What stands out from the survey is the perpetuation of perhaps the three most common math myths: 

  • Math does not apply to the real world (25.5%)
  • Being good at math is an innate ability and not every can be good at math (32.9%)
  • Boys are better at math than girls. (12.5%)

As educators we know these myths to be false.  But how do we combat them?

First, let’s incorporate more real-world problems into our courses. While it may require out-of-the-box thinking and sometimes a reconfiguring of a course, take it one problem at a time. Don’t try to reimagine every problem, but focus on a single issue that can be used through the term as a real-world touch point for different smaller problems. For inspiration, the AMS Blogs recently published an article by Victor Piercy that outlines how collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines can help you craft successful real-world application problems.

To combat the other two myths requires a different perspective on teaching. Over the past few years, educational research has focused on issues surrounding student performance in math classrooms, from math anxiety to fear of failure. This research has shown us that success in math classes is less about natural ability and more about doing the work.  

While these studies help inform our approach to our students, having actionable strategies is what we need for classroom interventions. A great place to begin is study habits—students who are averse to math tend to wait until the last minute to study. By helping students break studying down into smaller chunks of time can help them “digest” the math more easily.

At the intersection of “I’m not good at math.” and “How does this apply to the real-world?” are examples that can help break down these beliefs. Showing a variety of people who have studied and/or work as mathematicians to students is one starting point. Online sites showcasing the diversity of mathematicians include:

At the end of the day, it’s about finding a balance between ensuring students practice the math, which is necessary for success in the course, and infusing interesting life stories and real-world situations into the course. Capturing the attention of 18-22 year olds is never easy. But we hope this advice can help move the needle!