Why I ask my students how they “feel” when they’re working through a problem.

I’ve been learning more and more that students’ opinions about maths are actually related to the feeling of “not knowing” than maths itself. Sure, many students have a wall firmly built that keeps their anxiety about learning maths in perfect condition. I do believe, however, it’s a developed expectation to be saved by the teacher every time they don’t know what to do, or lack the confidence to try, fail and try again. When this happens time after time, students relate the feeling of uncertainty (and possibly discomfort) to maths instead of what is actually going on; learning.

Here’s what I do to help my students to become more comfortable with learning:

I tell them, “You have to not know something to be able to learn it”.

I find myself continually telling my students that they’re not supposed to know the correct answers to many of the questions I ask them. Furthermore, they won’t know the answers to the questions they wonder – which often makes them the best questions. Telling them that it’s ok to not know something, helps them realise that it is just a part of the learning process. It helps me combat the notion that to not know the answer is something to be ashamed of.

I ask questions like, “who finds something that looks like this intimidating?”

When I say *something like this* it is usually a problem or formula that I haven’t yet taught them how to use, or shown them at all. What I try to do by having a discussion about their initial feelings is to help them understand that they’re not the only ones who feels that way. This helps them overcome feelings of inadequacy and self doubt.

I show them where we started from.

Asking questions like, “do you remember when we did this?” and “How did it feel when you didn’t know how to solve this problem?” help students to acknowledge that they can learn something that seems very challenging to begin with. It also gives them more confidence that, when they start a new topic, they will eventually learn and become more comfortable with it.

I let them lie (as long as they confess).

I shouldn’t ask this question, but I often do out of habit, “who has found the answer to this question” or “can you put your hand up if you have finished this problem”. How I save myself from being completely ignorant of the poor students who have no idea what do is by following it up with this, “feel free to also put your hand up if you want to ‘fit in’ but haven’t yet finished or are completely lost. Just make sure you let me know that you just didn’t get it”. The first time I tried this, I didn’t even think about what I was saying – it just so happened to work brilliantly. I asked a stupid question to my class but the students who ‘got it’ went on with their work and the students that didn’t, came up to let me know. Until I can stop myself from asking the stupid question to begin with, I’ll have to try and keep coming up with ways to save myself.

When they’re stuck, instead of asking them what they don’t understand, I ask them what they do understand.

This is only something that I’ve started doing recently. I thought to myself, why is it that we always want students to pinpoint their confusion? Most of the time, they don’t know what they don’t understand, which is why they don’t understand it! Sound confusing? That’s because it is – imagine how the students feel! Asking the student to walk through their own understanding of the problem or concept gives us insight into where the misconception occurred and helps us to address it. It also requires the student to talk about their own understanding and justify their thinking.

I don’t expect that my students grades will skyrocket, nor do I use their achievement to measure my teaching ability. What I do hope is that my students become more confident learners and are more willing to take risks in their learning. I personally believe that learning happens when the boundaries of what is known and understood are pushed. If I can help my students become comfortable to push these boundaries, I feel like I’m teaching them much more than maths.


6 thoughts on “Why I ask my students how they “feel” when they’re working through a problem.

  1. Good stuff. It’s these little interactions that make big differences to students. I particularly like asking students what they do understand – this is a great way to help them know they’ve already succeeded, and indeed to help them go a bit further on their own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks David. What I didn’t mention in the post was that these interactions also helps me to develop a trusting relationship with the students – they know that my no.1 objective is to help them learn.


  2. Nice one. Similar to asking ‘What do you understand?’, I like asking students to tell me the story (not necessarily the details) of what they have done so far. It helps me see what they think is important (particularly if you are looking at a page of their work), and it helps them sort back through their thinking. As you’d expect, often they ‘unstick’ themselves without much help from me. Otherwise I’ll ask them another question about something they’ve done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Often it’s a careless error rather than a gap in their understanding. What’s important is that they learn the value of checking their own working out before assuming they’re wrong or don’t understand the concept.


  3. Pingback: What I learnt about teaching Maths in 2016 | How I teach maths.

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