Remember the ABC’s of Adolescent Math Learners


Lisa Medoff, teacher in the program in human biology and the School of Education at Stanford University, shares insights from her article “Getting Beyond ‘I Hate Math!’” in the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership about teaching to adolescent students. 

By two weeks into the quarter, my college students can anticipate when I’m about to recite one of my mantras about adolescents. They chant phrases along with me like, “You’re not allowed to say ‘raging hormones’ in my classroom” and “Don’t forget your ABC’s!”

Lisa Medoff on adolecent mathI touch on this last theme in my article “Getting Beyond ‘I Hate Math’” in the September 2013 Educational Leadership: Problematic behavior that we often ascribe as inherent to adolescence can instead result from a mismatch between the needs of adolescents and the institutions that serve them.

It’s incredibly important that educators incorporate adolescents’ needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence (the aforementioned ABC’s) into many aspects of school, from classroom structure to curriculum and assignments. These needs are not unique to adolescents, but they become particularly salient with the physical, social, and cognitive changes teens go through during this time. It’s very important that math teachers keep these three needs in mind; adolescents often use their performance in math to judge their intelligence and ability to succeed in school.

As adolescents pursue autonomy, they begin to separate from and question adults. They may ask why they need to take math and when they’ll use what they are learning. Take students’ questions seriously. Explore them while guiding students to ask questions politely. Offer students a choice of assignments when possible, such as allowing them to do the regular textbook homework set, write an explanation of how to do the problems, or post a video of themselves explaining a concept.

Belonging to a group is comforting for all of us, but is especially important for adolescents, who are solidifying their identities and feel unsure of themselves. As long as teens can do so productively, let them do some classwork in friendship groups. Assign homework or tests that allow kids to work together. Hands-on math activities that give each group member a specific role boost both learning and sense of belonging and reduce the anxiety often associated with demonstrating a math problem in front of an entire class. Make sure each individual student feels she or he is a vital part of the classroom who would be missed if absent. Help students use math to do service projects for the community so they feel they have an important contribution to make.

Competence is definitely something many adolescents don’t feel, especially in math. Seek out activities and assessments that expand beyond traditional textbook problems and tests, such as projects where students can continue to work on and improve their skills, rather than compete against others for test scores. When tests are necessary, emphasize mastery over grades, allow for test corrections or retakes, and use math content to help students improve study skills and figure out how they learn best.

My EL article discusses eight strategies consistent with these ABC’s that help students who struggle with math. As you plan your next lesson, ask yourself how you’re meeting the needs of all students when it comes to the ABC’s of adolescence.