How Our Math Mindsets Survey Helped Ease Students’ Fears Around Learning

by | 08.29.23

Katie Hale is a third grade Elementary Teacher in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. @KatieHale_.

When looking for more ways to incorporate student voice, I landed on creating a math mindset survey for my elementary school students and their families. At the time, my teammate and I were working through the differentiation and assessment portions of our National Board Certification. So, the question of how to provide more opportunities for student voice and choice in the classroom was high on our list of priorities. We needed a tool that could document what our students thought and how they described their own experiences, while allowing us to pull that data and inform our teaching strategies for the coming term. 

My teammate and I collaborated to get to a place of clarity around what we wanted the survey to do and what questions it would need to include. We realized we needed the survey to tackle a couple different goals: (1) Provide us with insights on students’ self awareness of their own learning process, and (2) Provide us with feedback about the experience we were shaping for them as teachers.

(Scroll to the end of this post to see more images of my math mindsets survey!)

We combed through all our ideas and landed on a mix of multiple choice questions, which related back to primary standards like multiplication, division and graphing. These included questions like: “What do you think you are successful with?” and “What do you think is difficult for you?” We decided not to set a limit on the responses students could choose so we could get as full a picture of their experience as possible. We also included a few open-ended questions: “What is the most helpful thing a teacher can give you in the classroom?” “What way do you learn best?” and  “What’s the most frustrating thing about math for you?” (It was important to us not to skip that last one so we could meet students wherever they were in their relationship with math and support them in evolving it.)

Together, these two kinds of questions helped us build a picture of the kinds of learners we have in our classroom and pointed toward first steps we could take in our planning to meet more of their needs. When we got students’ responses back, we sat down together and took it all in. From seeing the individual responses and zooming out to the common trends, we were in a much better place to collaborate on our lesson planning and on the strategies we needed to utilize throughout the school year.

I really appreciated receiving honest, unexpected responses to the question “Is there anything else you’d like your teacher to know.” The survey gave us an opportunity to learn more about our actual classroom, and the ways our students needed to use the space. In one response, a student asked: “Can you move me to the front? I can’t see what you’re writing.” It can take a lot of bravery for students to express things they need, even if those needs are actually an easy change for us to make as teachers. Having an opportunity to make that specific request without having to raise their hand or express a sensitive need in front of their peers made a real difference in this student’s experience and how they were able to access the material. Some students also took the opportunity to let us know how they were feeling about our classroom community and their comfort interacting with peers.

I could see that many students felt some fear and uncertainty around collaborative work and having those crucial peer-to-peer conversations in math. That mix of emotions made a lot of sense to me as I thought about their formative experiences during the pandemic: a shortened kindergarten year, a virtual first grade year and a hybrid second grade year. Those unique experiences all add up to a big contrast to in-person, simultaneous and unmediated conversations with peers. So we took the time to address the fear and explore how to learn cooperatively in a really deliberate and structured way.

I always want students to feel comfortable talking to me, but I also want to make sure they feel comfortable and confident talking to one another. It’s all a part of exploring and expanding their relationship with the principles we’re learning, as well as their sense of self-awareness as learners sharing the space with other learners. In the conversations we had, I liked to really emphasize that making mistakes, disagreeing with another student’s work or understanding part of a problem — but not the whole — are all great moments to speak up. Those moments let us have a lot of different kinds of conversations and keep us growing as a whole class. I tell my students that as long as you’re talking it out and sharing why you think what you think, making mistakes or not quite “getting it” is 100% okay!

In addition to conversations about collaborative learning, I started practicing lots of Kagan cooperative learning structures, using very specific, step-by-step, explicit instruction on how to be cooperative and beginning every single lesson with a Number Talk. We do several forms of number talks, and we keep as many as we can open-ended with multiple right answers — as long as students can share their thinking process. For example, we’ll take five minutes and put a slide up on our screen, with four shapes. Some shapes had gridded lines in a rectangle. Some were open rectangles. Some had just the length and width of a rectangle. And our goal was to have a conversation about what shapes belong or don’t belong in the group: This one doesn’t belong because it’s been divided into rows and columns. But, this one doesn’t belong because it’s not a closed shape! 

That combination of really practicing how to share the classroom space, how to give one another their attention and how to share their own thinking helped ease our entire class into working with one another, following along their peers’ thinking, building comfort with speaking up and using classroom conversations purposefully to help build their own understanding. Towards the end of the year, I’ve seen students get confident enough to come up and lead our number talks. Seeing them move out of this place of nervousness about working more closely with their peers to being excited to lead the class in learning has been monumental.

If you’re thinking about more ways to include student voice in a more documented and systematic way, don’t be scared to give a survey like this a try. Embrace the honest feedback and the opportunity for unexpected insights. Some might lead to quick and easy changes that make a huge difference in a child’s experience, and others will bring laser-focus to the strategies that could shift your classroom as a whole. 

But whatever combination of insights you receive, you definitely want to find out what they have to say. You want to be hearing from your students and helping them build their own self-awareness about how they learn. It’s made such a difference in encouraging my students to embrace being in the classroom, get excited about cooperative learning and start to shape their math identities as capable, resourceful peer leaders.

More community favorites