Teachers Name the Keys to High-School Math Success

04/19/2018

American high school students perform best in math when they pay attention in class, ask for help, and believe they can succeed. That’s the finding of a recent survey that polled more than 400 high-school math teachers across the nation on the formula for success to improve student scores and interest in math.

Conducted by the Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), the study revealed that 68 percent of the teachers believe lack of confidence is the biggest stumbling block to a student’s ability to succeed in math. Almost half (45 percent) said students would perform better if they were less distracted by extracurricular activities, time with friends, and social media.

When they were asked to name the top three success factors needed to excel in math, 75 percent cited working hard to understand math concepts, plus knowing when to apply them versus simply memorizing formulas. Sixty-three percent of the teachers said that the desire, initiative and motivation to succeed in math is critical; and 48 percent said that students must first believe they can succeed.

Sixty-six percent of respondents gave this as their best piece of advice for students looking to do well in math: pay attention in class and ask for clarification when needed.

The teachers queried are all coaches of student teams participating in the MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national Internet-based contest organized by SIAM. Now in its 13th year, the competition involves thousands of high school juniors and seniors who commit 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in March to come up with a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling.

Sponsored by Massachusetts-based MathWorks – a company that develops mathematical computing software – the M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics as a powerful problem-solving tool and a viable, exciting profession. It awards $100,000 in scholarship prizes.

This year’s challenge, which asked students to find solutions to the issue of food insecurity in the U.S., drew the participation of 4,175 students working in 913 teams, with six teams judged to be superior by a national panel of professional mathematicians. The finalist teams – from Lincolnshire, Illinois; Lincroft, New Jersey; Los Altos, California; Middlebury, Vermont; Osprey, Florida; and Waxhaw, North Carolina – moved on to participate in the final event in New York City on April 30.

Math and real-world problems

According to 80 percent of the math teachers surveyed, applying math to real-world problems helps increase both student interest and understanding. Other ways of boosting math’s appeal, they said, are to play games that incorporate math concepts to make learning more fun, and to hold in-class contests or challenges to motivate students to succeed.

To build confidence, 49 percent of respondents suggested enabling students to excel at a level of math slightly below their potential and work their way up from there. Forty-three percent said working closely with a math teacher or mentor is an effective way to build confidence and better understand concepts.

Respondents said parents should avoid talking negatively about math, such as how “hard” or useless it is (74 percent). Instead, they should encourage the student to ask for help when needed – whether it’s from a teacher, friend or other outside resource – if the parents themselves don’t know the answers (71 percent). They should also show an interest in their child’s studies and discuss what they learned in math class that day (46 percent).

Nature versus nurture

“Contrary to public opinion, the results of the survey demonstrate that success in math is not based on nature. An aptitude for math can be nurtured with effort, motivation and self-assurance,” said Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at SIAM. “The results also reinforce the importance of making math relevant to everyday life as a foundation to increase students’ desire to learn.”

Making math relevant is the underlying reason MathWorks sponsors the M3 Challenge, says Lauren Tabolinsky, the company’s academic program manager. It reinforces the importance of math in everyday life and encourages computational thinking, logic, problem solving and even some technical computing and programming.


MathWorks, based in Natick, Massachusetts, is the leading developer of mathematical computing software. Founded in 1984, it employs more than 3,500 people in 15 countries. For more information, visit mathworks.com. The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics is an international group of more than 14,000 individual, academic and corporate members from 85 countries. SIAM helps build cooperation between mathematics and the worlds of science and technology to solve real-world problems.

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