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V.5 #1 Mathematics - Understanding Students’ Mathematics Identities: Setting the Stage for Positive

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph'sUniversity.

Mathematics. The mere mention of the word conjures up an array of affective images and responses from students and teachers alike. There are those mathematics aficionados who embrace the subject and approach it with confidence, those on the opposite spectrum who suffer from mathematics anxiety or phobia and shy away from tasks related to this subject or avoid them altogether, to an array of mathematics dispositions in between. Think about where you may fall along the spectrum and how you may have arrived there. Chances are that experiences in your formative years, notably prior school experiences, impacted your mathematics identity—your beliefs about yourself in relation to mathematics.

The Social Context of Mathematics Beliefs

In mathematics education research, it is well documented that beliefs about mathematics are formed as a result of social influences. Theorists generally agree that beliefs are created early in one’s life through a process of enculturation, social construction, and cultural transmission (Pajares, 1992; Seaman, Szydlik, Szydlik, & Beam, 2005). Beliefs are the product of upbringing, reflection of life experiences, and the result of socialization processes in schools (Raths, 2001) which includes the influence of other significant people in that environment (e.g., teachers, peers, and parents), cultural and personal values placed on the learning, and learner-related affective as well as cognitive variables (Leder, 1992).

Although family and culture do play a critical role in influencing beliefs about mathematics, the greatest factor shaping these beliefs appears to be accumulated prior school experiences. Mathematics classrooms are social settings. The social context enables or inhibits what is learned, how it is learned, and which students learn it. It is all too common to hear students say that they do not like mathematics, are not good at it, or just cannot do it. How often is the same said about English Language Arts? It appears to be more readily, even socially, acceptable to not like or be good at mathematics because in the United States there is a tendency to believe that learning mathematics is a question more of ability than effort (Lewin, 2008; McLeod, 1992). Consequently, we are more accepting of poorer performance in mathematics than other subjects. However, this attitude is problematic because it can genuinely hinder students in the future as they go through school and assume careers; it can result in having life-long negative mathematics identities.

Understanding Students’ Mathematics Identities

In order to avoid perpetuating cycles of negative mathematics affect, what can teachers do to potentially set students on positive mathematics journeys? With every school year, teachers have probably given a lot of thought to setting up the physical layout of the classroom and the scope and sequence of the curriculum, but what about building a community of mathematics learners? Given the educational climate of accountability, it would behoove teachers to get to know their students as mathematical beings. Having some sense of their beliefs about themselves in relation to mathematics at the start of each school year can help guide teachers’ practices. Below are some suggestions for formative assessments for how teachers can learn more about their students as mathematical beings at the onset of the school year.

  • Grades K-2. Begin with a simple sentence starter in which students can write their responses in a mathematics journal. This prompt might take the form of “I like mathematics because_______.” or “I don’t like mathematics because______.” Given the nascent writing stages of early elementary school students, keep the prompt short and only expect a response of a sentence or two. Those students with pronounced writing difficulties can dictate their responses