Math Emotions: Helping Students Process Mistakes with Online Practice Systems

Math Emotions: Helping Students Process Mistakes with Online Practice Systems

I’m more of a math therapist than a math teacher.

An Oakland teacher said this line on a conference call a year ago while talking about his students’ use of online math practice systems.  This line, more than any other, synthesizes the interesting challenge of using online practice systems with struggling math students. The advantages of online practice are numerous – instant feedback for kids, more time on task practice, automatically scaffolded practice, accountability for work completion, and freeing up time for teachers from grading so they can focus more on planning. For 60% of my students, this feedback loop from online practice systems works as expected. For the other 40%, however, who are supposed to benefit most from scaffolded, individualized practice, student confidence is a huge hurdle.  During a practice session, you can expect to hear the following

This program is cheating!

I’m about to quit.

[Slamming laptop computer closed]

This is stupid.

I’m just going to guess.

Can we do something else?

I’m about to get mad!


As students do more and more questions, and get more wrong, the mental process students follow looks like this:



Dealing with this process, and changing students mindset to move from the top row to the bottom, takes consistent feedback to students.  That includes work from our social worker and the student wellness team.  I asked Tia Brumsted, MSW, LICSW, to share her thoughts on math practice:


More than half of my students who experience moderate to significant levels of anxiety also lack confidence and struggle in math. This experience is blind of gender and learning ability. For these students, the immediacy of feedback often leads to distorted thinking, angst, and unproductive work habits.


I often give students this concrete explanation of the cognitive cycle:


Thoughts create feelings. Feelings create behavior. Behavior reinforces thoughts.


Avoiding feelings of frustration and inadequacy can lead to stagnation and even defiance within the classroom. However, the genesis is not the feeling, but the thought. The first task is shifting a student’s mindset from “I am not smart enough to learn this” to “I am already a learner who is just getting smarter.”


Teaching students about automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs, helps them understand the impact of that initial “I’m stupid” on their ability to complete a math problem. When students are mindful of the ANTs and have strategies to work through their feelings (instead of avoiding them) they are more likely to challenge their ANTs with realistic, manageable thoughts about themselves and persevere through the task at-hand.



So the challenge, as Math therapists and coaches, is how do we structure practice to help build student confidence to complete problems – moving them from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?  Further, how do we help make them technology enabled – meaning that they start to view technology as a means to an ends to learn a new topic, rather than being dependent upon an adult to work through a question?


The following are some of the strategies we use and continue to reflect on:


Incorrect Answer Think Alouds


When students are working through a question that I know he/she is struggling with, I will let them work the problem as they think they are supposed to and submit in answer without correcting any mistakes they may have made.  If they get the question correct, I ask them to explain their process to me so that they gain confidence in their process. If they get the question incorrect, I help pause their emotional response, and I read through the process of the correct answer with them.  Often times struggling students bypass this whole step, never seeing what might have been a little calculation mistake or a huge conceptual mistake.  By reading it through with them, I’m trying to model the pace and curiosity they want to take when they get a question wrong.  75% of the time, before I’ve gotten halfway through reading a student has read ahead of me and said “Oh, I get it now, I should have done this”.  The final step of modeling this is encouraging students to write this new idea down on their paper as a resource.


Alignment of practice on paper


When students practice online and type in answers, they feel as though they don’t need to write down scratch work.  This false confidence is a habit that I work to break by not only encouraging students to use scratch work by supplying plentiful paper, but further by not helping students unless scratch paper is present on their desk.  Additionally, it’s incredibly important that students have worked through the problems they will practice online on paper first.


Observation Feedback


When sitting next to a student working on IXL and becoming frustrated, it’s sometimes helpful to just give them feedback on their process.  Asking them what their feeling, if they’re are distracted, anxious, or stressed, and how these feeling might be affecting their work.  Asking them to monitor these feelings helps them recognize the negative feelings that might be affecting their work, and implement a strategy that they’ve worked on with our social worker before moving on to the next problem.




Providing students evidence of their mastery and growth provides a foundation for helping encourage students that they have and will continue to demonstrate mastery on new and complex tasks.  Ensuring that these trackers are students owned is important so that they continue to monitor their own progress throughout their course.


While online practice systems pose an emotional challenge to struggling math students, they also present an opportunity to practice and develop coping habits that translate to other classes.  Math is challenging, and as students gain the tools to move from a fixed mindset to a learner mindset, these tools translate to other classes.

Written by Will Stafford

High school Math teacher at EL Haynes Public Charter School

One comment

  1. Will,

    I wonder if you’d take a look at and let me know what you think with regard to some of these issues.

    I built it expressly to create an environment where a student can learn through the exercises, so there are tight feedback loops to help students figure out a solution, challenges that slowly increase in complexity to help them develop patterns and test those patterns, and a hint system that helps them work through a challenge that is too difficult.

    It’s not meant to be a system that verifies mastery in it’s current form, but rather a system that helps to instruct.

    Anyways would be curious to hear your thoughts about. Happy to help you try it with students if you’d like.


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