In Brief

It's a typical math horror story: Your sixth-grade daughter gets confused in math class, but won't ask the teacher for help. She puts little effort into her homework and doesn't like to try new ways of learning math--all the while her math grades are dropping.

What leads students to such academic self-destructive behavior? It may be the learning environment math teachers foster in their classrooms, suggests a new study.

In the March issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol. 94, No. 1), University of Notre Dame researcher Julianne C. Turner, PhD, and her colleagues report that students are more likely to withdraw effort, resist novel learning approaches and avoid seeking help when they have math teachers who place low, rather than high importance on learning and mastery of math skills.

The difference? Teachers who run low-mastery classrooms don't stop to clarify concepts or focus on whether students get the answers right, while those who run high-mastery classrooms emphasize the learning process by stressing that being unsure, learning from mistakes and asking questions are natural parts of learning.

In the study, researchers surveyed 1,092 students on their avoidance strategies and then observed and audiotaped their math teachers in action. They found that the dialogue between teachers and students in the low- and high-mastery classrooms was quite different. For example, a high-mastery teacher asked her students if they remembered a previous concept, and added: "Don't look around and say to yourself, 'I'm not going to raise my hand because I don't want Jennifer to think I'm dumb.' If you don't remember, please raise your hand." When "Jason" did raise his hand, the teacher asked his classmate to explain the concept in "kid talk," then called Jason to the board to do a problem, offering cues to help him along the way.

In contrast, a low-mastery teacher in the study seemed annoyed when students gave wrong answers, by, for instance, telling a student having trouble with a problem on the blackboard: "Serena, sit down. Barry, come up and fix that."

The researchers found that students in the high-mastery classrooms were significantly less likely to use avoidance strategies than those in low-mastery classrooms.

The authors also found that teachers who use appropriate doses of laughter and other motivational support were more likely to create environments where students felt comfortable asking for help.

--D. SMITH