Expert Viewpoint

How an Asset-Based Summer Program Helps Students Build Intrinsic Confidence — Even in Math

After years of learning disruptions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools are looking to strengthen their summer learning programs in an effort to help students make up for lost instructional time. An asset-based approach shifts the focus from learning loss to learning opportunities and gives summer school teachers strategies to turn struggling math learners into confident problem-solvers.

This shift in focus away from student deficits and toward the existing strengths that they can build future learning on is central to asset-based learning, an approach that can help students develop confidence, persistence, and a growth mindset. Here’s how it works in a summer math program called ST Math Immersion that I helped develop for students in grades K–5.

Why Is Asset-Based Learning Important?

The idea at the heart of asset-based approach is to focus on students’ strengths and talents instead of only focusing on their deficits. By focusing on strengths, educators can help students understand how to use them to build new strengths.

This shift in focus encourages educators to leverage each student’s potential by helping them understand the things they do successfully, the difficult lessons they’ve already mastered, how they have learned from their mistakes, and the hard work they’re putting into progressing right now. The idea is to draw students’ attention to the things they’re good at, how they are thinking about math, and the ways their strengths might help them become even stronger.

When teachers talk to students about their potential to learn and their history as successful learners, students begin making amazing progress — but more importantly, they begin to believe they are capable of learning math, or anything else if they put in the effort. As the recent National Math Panel report put it: "When children believe that their efforts to learn make them ‘smarter,’ they show greater persistence in mathematics learning."

Make Students See Their Own Learning As It Happens

Students who attend summer school tend not to have a great relationship with math. They often feel like they aren’t smart enough to do it, and they may lack confidence in their ability to learn. To help them begin building confidence, Immersion asks students to chart their own thinking and learning in a journal called “My Thinking Path.”

This daily journal asks questions like, “What do you know about adding fractions?” Students then write down everything they know, along with any questions they have. Each day, they begin class by going back to their journal, writing what they’ve learned and how their thinking has changed. What they find over time is that they are answering their own questions as they progress.

This positions students as the authors of their own learning and makes their thinking visible by giving them a record of their growth and the reflections that enabled it along the way. It helps students to build an intrinsic confidence based in their own belief about their ability to learn math.

Focusing on Process and Problem-Solving

At the center of an effective summer math program is problem-solving. In the software my organization develops, the problems students solve are presented as visual, spatial-temporal puzzles in a gamified format. Teachers could also use manipulatives and story problems to present problems to students. However the problems are presented, it is important for students to make a prediction on how to solve the problem, test their prediction, observe the results, and then use those results to make a new prediction to test.

As students engage in this problem-solving process over and over, the teacher’s role is not to give them the answers when they get stuck, but to ask questions that facilitate student thinking: “What question is this problem asking you to solve?” “What other strategies might you try?” or “What did you learn when you tried that?”

By engaging in sharing strategies, thoughts, and perspectives, students learn to see each other as mathematical resources and build on each other’s ideas. This focus on problem-solving is more than applying procedures and practicing skills. Students are learning how to approach problems and solve them by leveraging what they know, testing solutions, and then refining their next attempt based on what they learned when the last one failed. It’s a simple and practical way for thinking through problems.

Change Students’ Relationships with Math

Many students who struggle with math have developed a fear and anxiety around it. This is all too common in our culture. When I was a math teacher, I heard parents tell me they were not good at math. As a society, we like to think that there are math people and non-math people. The truth is, there’s only one kind of person: the kind who is capable of learning math, even if it’s a little harder or takes a little longer for some of us.

To help support parents — and to give students a chance to demonstrate that they are capable and confident problem-solvers — the Immersion program ends by bringing parents in on the last day so that they can see everything their students have accomplished and learned over the course of the program.

Asset-based summer learning is not just a great way to help students catch up in math. It’s an opportunity to transform a student’s relationship with math and set them up for greater confidence and success in the subject as they progress.

It can, however, be challenging. It takes training and practice, because recognizing assets is not merely offering compliments. It’s identifying individual strengths and then connecting them to the math concepts students are learning.

The goal is to point out the ways in which students are already mathematical. Take, for example, a student who is always tapping out a drum beat on their desk. If that student is struggling with fractions, they might start to look at them differently if you point out how their drum beat consists of fractional parts of time. Helping students make those connections takes practice, and it requires a deep knowledge of your subject and a commitment to building meaningful relationships with your students.

Despite the challenge, I have no question that it’s worth it, because I’ve seen this approach result in students developing a positive math identity. They would tell me that getting answers wrong doesn’t mean they’re a failure, it just means they’re still learning and will figure it out. That kind of freedom to fail can only come from an inner confidence in their own ability to succeed.

About the Author

Twana Young is vice president of curriculum and instruction at MIND Research Institute, whose ST Math program takes a visual approach to math instruction that is based in neuroscience. Prior to joining MIND, Young was a classroom teacher and district curriculum director for math, science, and instructional technology. She has worked in education for more than 20 years.