Why Growth Mindsets Are So Important For Student Success in Math

BRIGHT: Why Growth Mindsets Are So Important For Student Success in Math (feat. Christy Trombetta from Michigan Virtual)
Meet Christy Trombetta, an online math teacher at Michigan Virtual who has a particular knack for helping students develop growth mindsets in her online math classroom. When a student tells her they’re “bad at math,” she takes this self-labeling as a signal that the student may need extra support to shift their inner dialogue from “I’m bad at math” to “I can actually do this.”
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Many students come into Christy Trombetta’s online math classroom thinking they are “bad at math.”

But more than reflecting their actual ability, what Trombetta has found is that this self-labeling reflects a “fixed mindset.” 

“A lot of students come in, and they’re not very confident,” she says. “They have this idea that they’re just not very good at math. My vision for these students is that I can help them get there. I want them to get past that ‘fixed mindset’ of thinking that ‘this is all I’m capable of’ to a growth-mindset approach where they can know that their potential is boundless.”

“I want them to get past that ‘fixed mindset’ of thinking that ‘this is all I’m capable of’ to a growth-mindset approach where they can know that their potential is boundless.”

By spending intentional time fostering “growth mindsets” among her students, Trombetta helps them understand that their mathematical abilities are not set in stone. 

Instead, they are skills that can be honed over time.

She reminds us that there’s no such thing as a student who is “bad as math.” 

Instead, when a student says something like this, Trombetta pays attention and works closely with them over the semester to build their confidence. She takes this self-labeling as a signal that this student may need extra support to shift their inner dialogue from I’m bad at math to I can actually do this.”

From the face-to-face classroom to teaching math online

Trombetta has been a teacher for nearly 20 years. Early in her career, she started off teaching face-to-face in the metro Detroit area. Then, after taking a few years off to raise her own children, she earned her master’s degree in mathematics from Eastern Michigan University and has since been teaching students online. 

When she first began teaching, the perception of online courses was very different than it is today.

“I think the impression at that time was very much that online classes are just easy, busy work. You just do the work, and you get the A,” she says. “I don’t think that is necessarily the impression anymore. The quality of online courses has increased dramatically from the time that I started teaching online to now. Honestly, the improvement is amazing.”

See also: Are online courses “easier” than face-to-face courses?

Trombetta says that technology has profoundly impacted the teaching profession in both face-to-face and online classrooms.

“When I first began my career teaching, there wasn’t a lot of technology,” she explains. “There’s so much more technology available to us now, and not just any technology, but good technology — tools that we can really utilize to engage the students’ experience.”

“There’s so much more technology available to us now, and not just any technology, but good technology — tools that we can really utilize to engage the students’ experience.”

One technology that Trombetta uses in her online math classroom is a drawing tablet (this drawing tablet, to be specific). 

Before she had this tool, she says, it was rather cumbersome to write out math equations on her laptop when helping students solve problems.

Before Trombetta used the drawing tablet, she explains, “I would have Microsoft Word open because there’s a math editor in there. And I’d open all the symbols. But it was so time-consuming to do that. It’s much easier now to just be able to write.”

A shift in mindset: From teaching math to teaching students

Since her first day in the classroom, Trombetta says that her entire teaching philosophy has changed.

At first, she says, her focus was on teaching math. 

Now, it’s on teaching students.

The difference is more than rhetorical.

“When I started out as a teacher,” she says, “I really felt like, ‘I’m teaching math, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m good at math, and I can teach these students math, and it’s going to be great.’ My philosophy now is, ‘Yes, I’m teaching math, I love math, and it’s great. But really, I’m teaching students. And if I want them to learn the math, I have to get to know my students. So my approach now is much different. I get to know the students first then we work on the math.”

“My approach now is much different. I get to know the students first then we work on the math.”

Relationship-building is the cornerstone of Trombetta’s online math classroom.

When she switched over to the online math classroom, she was surprised to find she was actually able to spend more one-on-one time with her students.

“When I was a face-to-face teacher,” she says, “I spent a lot of time developing lessons. While I did have those relationships with my students, I don’t think I spent nearly as much time doing that as I did trying to figure out how I would teach the math. It’s nice having the curriculum already there, but still knowing that I can add extra resources for my students and make activities that I think will support their learning. Now I can focus a lot of my time on working with these students, meeting with them one-on-one, when necessary, and sending out communications to keep them on track.”

These intentional communications are vital in the online classroom.

“In a face-to-face classroom,” Trombetta explains, “you can just have those conversations with the student when you see them in class. In the online classroom, we have to be so much more intentional about making sure these conversations happen.”

Making math attainable for all

There are many good reasons that relationship-building is central to Trombetta’s teaching philosophy.

But one fundamental reason is:

To reach students who already feel as though they’re “bad at math” and “can’t do it,” she needs to first build trust with the student.

“When I encounter students that have this lack of confidence —  or math anxiety, as it’s sometimes called,” she says, “I try to find out exactly where they are. If I can get the student to meet with me and have a real discussion about why they haven’t started their coursework yet or what’s going on at home or how do you really feel about math, then I can better know where to start with them and how to get them where they need to be .”

“If I can get the student to meet with me and have a real discussion about why they haven’t started their coursework yet or what’s going on at home or how do you really feel about math, then I can better know where to start with them and how to get them where they need to be .”

This first conversation, often initiated by her, is critical in building this trust and letting her know she wants her students to succeed.

In practice, this relationship-building looks like:

  • Taking notes on each student and their progress
  • Doing check-ins, both with students who are doing well and those who aren’t
  • Letting students know they can message her when they are stuck
  • Working with parents and providing them with resources

Often, if a student’s parent wasn’t successful in math, they, too, might have some of their own math anxiety. That’s why it can be essential to bring the parent into the conversation early on and get them on board for this growth mindset.

“I don’t want parents to feel like they can’t help their kid because they didn’t have a great math experience when they were a student,” Trombetta says. “I want them to have that confidence to sit side-by-side with their kid and say, ‘We’re going to figure this out together.”

Over time, this support helps both parents and students gain confidence and self-sufficiency.

“Eventually,” she reports, “there will be fewer messages and fewer meetings between us because they won’t need it as much. They will realize that they can do it on their own. It really does happen that way.”

A student transformed

Trombetta shared one remarkable story that illuminated how stifling a “fixed mindset” can be for students and how liberating it can be once they finally begin to shift toward a “growth mindset.

One of Trombetta’s students was caught cheating on an assignment. 

Rather than failing the student, however, she took a very different approach that was far more effective in the long run.

“[The student] had submitted a couple of assignments that were another student’s,” says Trombetta. “I noticed immediately that this was not her work, so I knew I had to reach out to this student and explain to her that submitting someone else’s work as your own is never acceptable. But  I also had to think about why she was doing this.”

“Most students don’t cheat just because it’s easier,” she elaborates. “Most students cheat because they don’t think they’re capable of doing it. The fear of getting a bad grade influences them into making a poor choice instead of reaching out for some help.”

“Most students don’t cheat just because it’s easier. Most students cheat because they don’t think they’re capable of doing it.”

She took an empathetic approach to dealing with the situation rather than a punitive one.

“I wanted her to know that this wasn’t the end of the road because she cheated on a couple of assignments,” Trombetta explains. “I told her, ‘We’re not going to stop here. We’re going to keep going. I know you can be successful in this class. You don’t have to do this alone. Maybe you felt like you couldn’t do this before, but we’re going to start over and go back to square one. We’re going to work on this, and I promise you, we’ll get there.’”

It took time, of course, but they did get there.

During their first couple of meetings, the student was embarrassed and had low confidence. Her head was down for most of the meeting. She wouldn’t look Trombetta in the eye.

But Trombetta maintained a positive, cheerful attitude, and in time, she helped build the student’s confidence, helping her shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Now during their meetings, this student smiles. She’s happy to be there. She’s determined to finish her course and learn the material. The first thing she wants to do is show Trombetta the work she completed the day before.

“Her level of confidence has raised so much over a couple of weeks,” Trombetta reports. “I know this is a student that is not going to need me at the end of the semester. I know she is going to be okay going on to her next math class. It’s been awesome to watch her grow in that way.”

Embracing and learning from failure is an integral part of developing a growth mindset.

“I want my students to know that I’m not mad at them because they made a mistake,” Trombetta says. “We all make mistakes, and we’re going to grow from those mistakes. And hopefully, we’re not going to make that same mistake again. We’ll be better for it.”

“I want my students to know that I’m not mad at them because they made a mistake. We all make mistakes, and we’re going to grow from those mistakes.”

Advice to fellow teachers: Give yourself grace & embrace failure

Trombetta has some advice for her fellow educators as we emerge together from the COVID-19 pandemic:

Let’s give one another grace.

“This is a time like we have never experienced before,” she says. “As teachers, I feel like we’re trying something new. Right now, we’re trying new ways to reach our students, and when we’re trying these things, we’re not always going to be successful at them. And that’s okay.”

“Right now, we’re trying new ways to reach our students, and when we’re trying these things, we’re not always going to be successful at them. And that’s okay.”

Teachers, too, need permission to make mistakes and learn from them. Things have been difficult over the past year, but we need to embrace both our failures and our successes to move forward.

 After all, isn’t that what it means to have a growth mindset?

See also: Invite a team from your school to this FREE half-day workshop & develop a vision for moving forward

Additional resources for teaching math online

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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