March 21, 2002

Students May Be Learning More About Avoidance Strategies Than Arithmetic in Math Class; Study Shows What Teachers Can Do

WASHINGTON — "Please don't call on me" can be a pervasive thought by students who are not doing well in math class. By early adolescence, it is common for some students to become experts in avoidance strategies — avoiding asking for help when they need it, withdrawing effort and resisting novel approaches to learning — in order to deflect attention from low ability. This type of behavior can cause students to fall further behind academically and may eventually lead some to drop out of school. But new research shows that teachers that emphasize learning rather than performance may help prevent this self-destructive behavior. The findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

In their study involving 1,092 sixth-grade students in 65 sixth-grade classrooms in four ethnically and economically diverse school districts in three Midwestern states, Julianne C. Turner, PhD, of the University of Notre Dame and co-authors surveyed the students to determine use of avoidance strategies. The study also included the use of trained observers who watched and audiotaped nine of the students' teachers while they taught their math classes.

The researchers found that students reported using fewer avoidance techniques in classrooms perceived as emphasizing learning, understanding, effort and enjoyment. In those classrooms, teachers helped students who had problems understanding, gave them opportunities to demonstrate new competencies and provided substantial motivational support for learning. Teachers in these "mastery-oriented" classrooms made sure their students did not feel inadequate or ashamed when they did not understand. "By modeling their own thinking processes, these teachers demonstrated that being unsure, learning from mistakes, and asking questions were natural and necessary parts of learning," according to the authors. By contrast, "students reported higher incidences of avoidance strategies in classrooms in which teachers devoted little attention to helping students build understanding and in which motivational support was low."

The teacher observations, say the authors, provided valuable insight into how teaching methods affect avoidance behaviors. For instance, in a classroom where students used more avoidance strategies, the teacher placed greater emphasis on getting an answer correct, with little discussion about the important concepts in a lesson and little explanation of why an answer was correct. If a student did not know the answer, the teacher would ask another student and did not usually stop to explain the answer. "Because the teacher typically did not respond to mistakes and misunderstandings with explanations or allow students to explain their strategies, his students may have felt vulnerable to public displays of incompetence and adopted more avoidance strategies," explained the researchers.

In classrooms where students used fewer avoidance strategies, the teachers tended to model, hint and elicit support from other students to help their students learn. In those classrooms, the students were active participants in instructional discourse that stressed understanding and explanation. "Perhaps because they knew their teachers and peers would help, students in these classrooms did not seem to need to adopt avoidance strategies to appear able to others," said the authors.

Classrooms with students who reported using avoidance strategies less also had teachers that used math-related humor as part of their lessons. Humor may lessen tension and encourage students to view their math classes as more enjoyable, say the authors.

Article: "The Classroom Environment and Students' Reports of Avoidance Strategies in Mathematics: A Multimethod Study," Julianne C. Turner, University of Notre Dame, Carol Midgley, University of Michigan, Debra K. Meyer, Elmhurst College, Margaret Gheen, University of Michigan, Eric M. Anderman, University of Kentucky, and Yongjin Kang, University of Michigan; Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 94, No. 1.

The research reported in the article was made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Lead author Julianne C. Turner, Ph.D., can be reached at (574) 631-3429.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.