Adding it up: Lumen Scholar examines how math anxiety can impact elementary school teachers

Molly Kearns ’19 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.​

<p>Lumen scholar Molly Kearns '19 with her mentor, Lecturer in Education Erin Hone.&nbsp;</p>
Ask Molly Kearns whether she’s “good at math,” and she’s quick to challenge the question. She debunks the idea that some are “good” at the subject while others are “bad,” noting the role that the opportunity to learn mathematics in the right environment and mindset play into how well a student grasps the concepts.

It’s an idea that is at the heart of the Elon senior’s extensive undergraduate research work as a Lumen Scholar. Kearns, an Honors Fellow and education major, has her sights set on teaching math to elementary school students. Her desire to be an effective math teacher is driving her research into some of the factors that could contribute to that, such as whether a teacher has anxiety about math and how well they self-assess their ability to adhere to best teaching practices.

“The way I was a student in math is very different from the way I want to be a teacher in math,” Kearns said. “Now I feel like I am very well prepared to teach math going forward.”

As a recipient of the Lumen Prize, Kearns received a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate her academic endeavors. A new cohort of Lumen Scholars is selected in the spring of each year, with the Lumen Prize now carrying with it a $20,000 scholarship.

Selected as a Lumen Scholar during her junior year, Kearns has been pursuing her research in close collaboration with mentor Erin Hone, lecturer in education.

“What I love about Molly is that she sees herself first and foremost as a teacher, using the research to help her deeply understand what good math instruction looks like now,” Hone said.

Kearns has been involved in teaching since before she arrived at Elon from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as a first-year student. During summers in high school, she created and ran a theater program for children in her neighborhood. During her senior year, the program culminated in a production of “The Lion King” at a local church that raised money for a local food bank. She also benefitted from positive experiences in school.

“Since I had always liked being in school, it was a natural thing to want to go into the teaching profession and learn about how to teach, and how students learn,” Kearns said. “It’s a new subject realm to dive into how people learn and more specifically, how children learn.”

Through her education classes at Elon, Kearns has been able to gain new perspective on how to relate to and help students who may be struggling at school or dislike school. Early in her Elon career, she began tutoring local kindergarten students in math, and experience that sparked her desire to teach the subject to elementary school students. “It was just a spark that I wanted to learn how kids develop their number sense,” Kearns said.

As she refined her focus for an honors thesis that would become her Lumen Prize work, she concentrated on the gender gap in STEM fields, and wanted to learn more about what factors might contribute to fewer women entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions than men.

“One thing I have noticed in a lot of my education classes is that a lot of elementary teachers have a lot of math anxiety,” Kearns said. “A lot of my peers were very anxious about the math they were supposed to be teaching.”

However, Kearns found little research into how that math anxiety held by teachers could play out in the classroom, both in how effective the teachers were in teaching the subject and how well they could assess the job they were doing. Through her Lumen Prize work, Kearns has been able to begin to fill in those gaps.

Central to her project has been a survey of 200 teachers from 40 states that rated their math anxiety using a validated tool. Additionally, the survey offered a variety of scenarios with students struggling with math for teachers to respond to. Finally, the survey delved into eight best practices for math instruction and asked the teachers to evaluate how well they had adhered to those practices in their earlier responses to the scenarios.

The goal was to look for correlations between the level of math anxiety with how a teacher responded, and then how effectively they evaluated their ability to respond, in terms of adhering to best practices.

“The overwhelming thing that we have found is that across all anxiety levels, teachers are typically not self-evaluating correctly,” Kearns said.

For instance, many teachers would respond that they held beliefs aligned with best teaching practices, but those practices wouldn’t be reflected in how they had responded to the real-world scenarios they had been given.

An examination of the data to this point indicates that perhaps some math anxiety could be a good thing, Kearns said. Those who might be more anxious about their abilities could be more mindful of how they are instructing students and whether they are adhering to best practices.

To complement the survey, Kearns has captured video of Alamance-Burlington School System teachers teaching math to elementary students. “I’ve used it to look at why some practices are harder to self-evaluate for than others, which has been so useful,” Kearns said.

The Lumen Prize has allowed Kearns and Hone to “learn alongside each other,” Hone said. It’s provided the opportunity to dive more deeply into research, Hone said. “and although she does look to me as a mentor, she’s given me the grace to learn this process with her. It’s really neat to see how our conversations have changed, from the point that we were novices to now we’re submitting manuscripts for publication in academic journals.”

The Lumen Prize has provided funding for the research itself as well as the opportunity to attend and present at conferences around the country. On her birthday this year, Kearns attended a workshop at Stanford University featuring Jo Boaler, a professor of math education at Stanford’s School of Education that was “the ultimate birthday gift.” Kearns regards Boaler as a role model, and the opportunity to learn from her directly greatly enhanced her work on her Lumen research as well as her development as a researcher and an educator, Kearns said.

“It’s great to be able to read books on this subject, but to be able to actually hear from those that are leading the way in this field is a whole different thing,” Kearns said.

Kearns was recently accepted to present her research at the American Educational Research Association conference, a prestigious gathering that typically accepts few undergraduate presenters. This month, Kearns and Hone presented to practicing teachers at the North Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Greensboro. In the presentation titled “Math-itudes: Are We Making Math Scary?”, they helped attendees identify their personal level of math anxiety, related strengths and challenges regarding their pedagogical practices and self-evaluative skills, and fostered discussion about why the complexity of several effective math teaching practices can make them challenging to execute and evaluate.

“I’m so excited for Molly because what she’s been able to achieve so far with her Lumen Prize work is something she can immediately take and apply to her own practice as a teacher,” Hone said.