Changing Minds about Math

Kathryn Baron of the Carnegie Corporation of New York recently published Escape Math Phobia which features the development, success, and future of Carnegie’s Community College Pathways. The article follows several students’ enrolled in the Pathways Program. It differs from traditional developmental math by highlighting real-world problems and adopting a student cohort model, including group work. In addition to building students’ conceptual knowledge of mathematics, Pathways faculty are also changing students’ beliefs about themselves as mathematics learners and improving their learning strategies, a combination we refer to as Productive Persistence.

When students first enter Pathways classes, over two-thirds of them believe that there is nothing they can do to improve their performance in mathematics, a position consistent with a fixed mindset (the belief that one’s talents as a math person are “fixed”—you either have them or not). By the end of the first month of class, however, there is a large shift in students’ mindsets. The majority of students are then in a growth mindset, the belief that you can learn and grow your understanding through a combination of sustained effort, good strategies, and help seeking when needed.  Looking beyond Pathways, students’ beliefs in themselves as capable learners are carrying over to their next classes with Pathways students earning more college credits in the following year relative to matched students from traditional developmental mathematics classes (follow-up analyses have shown that Pathways students earn significantly more credits following participation—5.57 credits vs 4.08 credits).

The shift in Pathways students’ mindsets and strategies is accomplished by the relevant, engaging curriculum and the innovative pedagogy, but also through a set of faculty-led activities and routines designed to explicitly foster students’ mindsets, study habits, motivation, and self-regulation. These tools promote students’ Productive Persistence and were co-developed by researchers and faculty members. They are now embedded within the teaching, training, and structure of Statway® and Quantway®.

“What students learn will have relevance, value, and purpose.” —Carnegie President Anthony S. Bryk

Baron describes the curriculum development process for Statway and Quantway from the point-of-view of participating faculty from 26 community colleges.  They teamed with a staff of the Carnegie Foundation to develop an initiative that, even in early implementation, resulted in triple the success in half the time. She identifies some of the cultural shifts facing math faculty as they adopt this new, deeper, and more student centered way of teaching, as well as the need for variation in approaches and differentiated courses based on student’s majors. Pathways continues to evolve and go to scale, helping students across the country overcome the previously seemingly insurmountable barrier of developmental math.

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