“I don’t do math!” The student announced to me with an angry tone and crossed her arms over her chest, chin set.

This student, age 16 years, was telling me about the position she had developed over years of unsuccessful interactions in class doing (attempting to do) math. I could appreciate her point of view as I, also, was never very good at math. Now, what do I as a teacher do to deal with this situation? Let her read a magazine while other students are struggling with their math work? Kick her out of the program?

What were the ‘facts’ of the situation? The bare-bone facts were that this student, like all the students there, had to pass a GED test to graduate from the program. The math level for the test was approximately 5-6th grade difficulty. What could I do to leap-frog over her very set beliefs (schemas) which were true for her, to get her to accomplish the goals set for her by the program?

Schema beliefs are very real for the person who has them. There was no point in my wasting my time arguing with her that her ‘beliefs weren’t true.’ They were true for her. (Piaget).

Also, emotions are the primary motivational system for behavior to include perception, cognition and actions. The function of fear (“I don’t do math”) is to motivate escape from a dangerous situation. Fear can disengage the motor system resulting in a freezing behavior when the individual is facing threats to self-concept or psychological well-being. (Izard & Ackerman).

The answer was that for this low-level class, I needed to scaffold on what the students already knew about math and start the process of building brand new schemas about math, who they were as students and what they were capable of doing.


As I said, I was never very good in math either.  Now, I consistently got A’s in History, English and Social Studies and passed an AP English class; but math, no.

The first semester I was in college, I was required to take a statistics class. (Yikes!) The teacher did something that I will never forget. He handed out pages and pages of multiplication problems, addition, subtraction and fractions. He made us do these dumb problems over and over and over again. Until, guess what, we were able to do them pretty well. He had taken existing schemas of basic math, which was in most cases was rusty, and forced us to practice the skills again and again until the skills were ‘exercised’ and ‘toned’. Only then, did he begin to spoon feed us the theoretical concepts of the class. I think I ended up getting a B in the class. The theory I could almost always understand, the mechanics threw me.

In Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning, the self-efficacy begins to materialize within the student as they gain successful mastery of the subject. As they are, step by step, able to do a thing, their view of themselves and their own abilities starts to increase and they become willing to tackle more difficult tasks.

With that math class, I started playing games of Bingo with the students.  I presented them with a simple math problem, they had to solve the problem and that answer was the answer on the Bingo card. They all got little prizes (Skinner, reinforcement) at the end (candy) for winning a card. I told that student “It’s not math, it’s Bingo.” Students’ were reshaping mental images of what ‘they could do and couldn’t do’ and replacing those images with new and successful ones.

Also, the Bingo game was of ‘interest’ to the students and ‘fun’ and they liked to play it. Additionally, these same absolutely loved Monopoly, a game which requires a fair amount of higher level mathematical thinking and reasoning.

Interest has clear motivational and goal components, particularly for exploration, information seeking, and learning (see Krapp, 1999; Sansone & Smith, 2000; Schiefele, Krapp, & Winteler, 1992). For example, people spend more time reading interesting text (Ainley, Hidi, & Berndorff, 2002) and process the text more deeply (Schiefele, 1999), resulting in enhanced learning.

Eventually, I had a number of students who were then able to pass the math section of the GED test and one boy who sailed through the Army ABSVAB test in one day.

Using behaviorism theory to reinforce the learning, (prizes) and schema theory to scaffold the old learning with the new and then social learning theory (self-efficacy) to build new self-concepts, we were able to pull students through course work which they were quite convinced they could not do.  What is also important is that students were working with other students. The social–learning context was reinforcing to the belief that ‘we’ can do this thing.



Bandura, Albert (2012). On the Functional Properties of Perceived Self-Efficacy Revisited. Journal of Management, Vol. 38 #1. DOI:10.1177/0149206311410606

Calvete, E, Orie I. and Hankin, B. L. (2013). Early Maladaptive Schemas and Social Anxiety in Adolescents, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 27, pgs 278-280.

Izard, Carroll E.  & Ackerman, Brian P. (2000). Motivation, Organization and Regulatory functions of Discrete Emotions. Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Ed., The Guilford Press, New York.

McLeod, Saul, 2007, updated 2015.  Skinner – Operant Conditioning, Simply Psychology, http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html, Retrieved Internet 2016.

Piaget, Jean (1975/1985).  Newman and Newman, (2007). Theories of Human Development, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Inc. ISBN 978-0-8058-4702-4, pgs. 83-108.

Silva , P. J.  (2005). What is interesting? Exploring the appraisal structure of interest. Emotion, Vol 5, pgs. 89-102.

Skinner, B. F. –  Newman and Newman, (2007). Theories of Human Development, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Inc. ISBN 978-0-8058-4702-4, pgs 133-135.