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Helping Students To Stop Failing Math

In the teacher groups I’m a part of, I keep seeing comments come up about the high amount of students failing math. Comments like,

“80% of my students are failing my class”

“I just gave a quiz and I thought my students were going to ace it, but only 5 of them did. I feel like a failure.”

I get it.

My first year of teaching, I felt the same way. As a white teacher in a historically underserved community I expected my classroom to look just like the upper middle class high school classroom I attended. When it didn’t, I felt… lost, frustrated, sad, confused, and like a total failure for my kids. My students were failing math in high school and it was killing me.

Over the next decade I would learn a lot about how to help students who struggle with math at the high school level and I would find out how to be the best teacher for them. I would get my Algebra 1 failure rate down to just a few students.


I’m sharing my top 4 tips to decrease failure rates in mathematics.

#1. Build community

Before you can do anything else in your class, you have to build a community where students who have struggled feel safe to take risks. This takes intentional community building. Not only do your students need to get to know you and trust that you won’t shame them for getting a multiplication problem wrong, they also need to know their peers won’t laugh if they get a question wrong in class. For tips on building this kind of community in your math classroom, check out this bundle of six ready to use activities to build this exact classroom culture.

#2. Require participation in every lesson

We cannot continue to let students sit passively in our classroom just hoping they’ll participate today. This has not served them well up to this point and it will not serve them well if you continue to let it happen. The best advice I have about requiring participation in every lesson is to use a cold calling technique so all students get called on, equitably, in your classroom. As a culture building activity, have students decorate index cards with their name and favorite activities. Collect those cards and save them. Use them every single day to ask students questions randomly all period. Do not allow volunteers. Rely on the cards 100% and you'll see a huge boost in your participation.

#3. Use weekly formal formative assessments

In his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan William defines formative assessment as,

“Encompassing all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.”

Teachers do a really good job giving assessments during class (mini whiteboards, exit slips, etc) however, these fall short of the power of being true formative assessments unless the teacher modifies the lesson as a result of the data they receive. This is where we often choose to just stick to the district pacing plan instead of adjusting to our students' true needs. When we fail to modify based on their needs, we will continue to see students failing math in high numbers.

#4. Adapt your grading practices

The longer I work in education, the more passionately I feel grading is the key to the student engagement and motivation puzzle. If students don’t feel your grading is fair, they will give up. If students feel your grading is arbitrary, they will give up. If students receive a 12% on an assignment in the grade book, they will give up. We need to take a hard look at our assessment and grading practices and make sure they are motivating our students, not continuing the cycle of failing math. I’m going to be sharing more about grading practices in the coming weeks (September/October 2021) so make sure you’re on my email list so you don’t miss out on all the grading goodies to come!

I share tips like this and so much more over on Instagram and I'd love to connect with you there!

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