Lack of Confidence Biggest Stumbling Block to Performing Well in Math, National Survey of High School Math Teachers Reveals

Lack of Confidence Biggest Stumbling Block to Performing Well in Math, National Survey of High School Math Teachers Reveals

Survey results offer formula for success to improve student scores and interest in math

April 11, 2018

Philadelphia, PA – 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 nationwide on the formula for success to improve student scores and interest in math.

Conducted by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), the study found that more than two-thirds of respondents (68 percent) cited lack of confidence as the biggest stumbling block to a student’s ability to succeed in math, while almost half (45 percent) of those surveyed said students would perform better if they were less distracted by extracurricular activities, time with friends and social media, and concentrated on the task at hand.

When asked about the top three success factors for high school students to excel in math, three-quarters (75 percent) said working hard to understand math concepts and when to apply them versus simply memorizing formulas is key. Sixty-three percent of participants pointed to students’ desire, initiative and motivation to succeed in math as being critical, and almost half (48 percent) said that students must first believe they can succeed. Above all, sixty-six percent of respondents said their best piece of advice for students looking to do well in math is to pay attention in class and ask for clarification when needed.

The teachers queried for the survey 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 committing 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 leading developer of mathematical computing software – M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics as a powerful problem-solving tool and a viable, exciting profession, awarding $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, IL, Lincroft, NJ, Los Altos, CA, Middlebury, VT, Osprey, FL and Waxhaw, NC – will participate in the final event in New York City on April 30.

Math and real-world problems

According to the majority (80 percent) of 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 (33 percent) and hold in-class contests or challenges to motivate students to succeed (32 percent).

To build confidence in math, 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.

As far as what parents of high school students can do to help their children succeed in math? Respondents said parents should avoid talking negatively about math, such as how “hard” or useless it is (74 percent); they should encourage the student to ask for help when needed — whether from a teacher, friend or other outside resource — if the parents themselves don’t know the answers (71 percent); and they should show an interest in their child’s studies and discuss what they learned in math class that day (46 percent).

Nature vs. Nurture

“Contrary to public opinion, the results of the survey demonstrate that success in math is not based on nature, but rather, 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.”

According to Lauren Tabolinsky, MathWorks academic program manager, making math relevant outside the classroom is the underlying reason MathWorks sponsors M3 Challenge. “Our support of M3 Challenge is one more step in our efforts to help teachers as they motivate and inspire young students to consider and pursue STEM careers,” she said.

“M3 Challenge reinforces the importance of math in everyday life and encourages computational thinking, logic, problem solving and even some technical computing and programming among high school students,” she explained. “For over three decades, MathWorks has engaged with student competitions around the world and our experience shows that many participants go on to pursue careers as scientists and engineers, armed with real-world skills and tools experience.”

More information about M3 Challenge and the 2018 challenge problem can be found here

About MathWorks

MathWorks is the leading developer of mathematical computing software. MATLAB, the language of technical computing, is a programming environment for algorithm development, data analysis, visualization, and numeric computation. Simulink is a graphical environment for simulation and Model-Based Design for multidomain dynamic and embedded systems. Engineers and scientists worldwide rely on these product families to accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, and development in automotive, aerospace, electronics, financial services, biotech-pharmaceutical, and other industries. MATLAB and Simulink are also fundamental teaching and research tools in the world's universities and learning institutions. Founded in 1984, MathWorks employs more than 3500 people in 15 countries, with headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, USA. For additional information, visit

About Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an international society 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 through publications, conferences, and communities like chapters, sections and activity groups. Learn more at

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