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Beat Math Negativity with Lessons in Mindfulness

Lessons learned while teaching in rural China showed Dr. Winnie Wong how to improve outcomes for math students in the US.


Winnie Wong, PhD

Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Notre Dame de Namur University and De Anza College, Belmont, California

PhD and MA in Applied Mathematics, BA in Mathematics

Once or twice a year, Winnie Wong, PhD, travels to China as part of a program that brings educational opportunities to rural areas of the country. This is part of the work she undertakes as president of the Evergreen Education Foundation, a US-based nonprofit organization that focuses on the education of children and young adults in rural China.

Her work there is not always academic. While some lessons involve basic literacy, science, health, and technology, others help residents with vital life skills, such as how to filter water or adopt techniques to improve soil fertility. Those students are then able (and encouraged) to take those techniques back to their communities. Wong explains, “Sometimes being able to teach [young people how] to use technology to be a better farmer or how to take care of their teeth or eyes is more relevant than teaching them [how to do] calculus.”

The key to effective teaching in this situation, Wong has found, is mindfulness: being engaged in the present moment. Mindfulness allows her to see what those young people truly need at that point in time, which helps her introduce the tools that will ultimately make their lives better.

Developing this skill has also helped her improve the experience of her mathematics students at Notre Dame de Namur University and De Anza College, in California.


The self-fulfilling prophecy of “I can’t do math”

In the courses Wong teaches to non–math majors, student attitudes run the gamut: A few of them like math, many are lukewarm about it, and some are certain they will never be able to do it, no matter what. For the ones who have had bad experiences, coming to class involves a great deal of trepidation—and their biased perception can easily lead to a negative overall experience.

“It’s like a loop,” Wong says. “They have to be reassured all the time.”

In the limited hours that Wong has with these students, she initially found it challenging to undo the years of emotional baggage they have collected and change the deep-seated beliefs that they cannot find success in a math class.

Then one day, while ruminating on the experiences and learnings gathered from her work in rural China, the answer became obvious.


Teaching mindfulness as well as math

Here is the surprise: While Wong uses a mindfulness approach in her work in rural China, she incorporates the teaching of mindfulness into her math courses in the US in order to improve her students’ perceptions of their own abilities.

For students who have a history of negativity toward math, Wong feels that this is the important step in countering their initial attitudes that they “are not good enough for this.” She acknowledges to her students that it is obviously very important to know the material and be able to do it, but she adds that the attitude that students bring into the classroom is just as important. They must acknowledge that they are good enough—that acknowledgment breaks the negative loop so students can move forward with learning.

Wong says that this is not about positive thinking alone. It is about being in a positively balanced space that drives success in class and in life.


“My pedagogy is very simple: to prepare my students not only for academic knowledge readiness (as their math professor) but also train them on cognitive skills (as their academic mentor) so they can strive, persevere, and, in turn, excel in whichever field they choose to shine.”

— Winnie Wong, PhD

Course: MTH 1105 Math and Life

Course description: This course is designed for day students in Arts, Humanities, and other majors that do not use Mathematics as a prerequisite in their curriculum. The topics are selected to introduce students to the role and usefulness of mathematics in everyday life. The focus is on understanding the concepts and the process of applying mathematical analysis to current and real problems. With only simple mathematical tools, students get a glimpse of the power of mathematical thinking.

See resources shared by Winnie Wong, PhD

See materials

Lesson: Finding moments for mindfulness (in any course)

Wong’s first few weeks of classes are the same as those in any other course: She distributes and reviews the syllabus, sets expectations and rules, and answers any questions on her policies, to cut through any initial confusion. “During the first week of class,” Wong says, “Students are kind of in a cloud and don’t always register all of the information.” Because of this, she also reiterates the information at various times throughout the semester.

Once the initial expectations are set, Wong takes a few unique steps that introduce mindfulness to her students. Here are the strategies that set her approach apart.

Have them become mindful of their own expectations

After a few classes are under their belts, Wong gives the students an assignment that might feel unexpected for a math class: writing a personal letter to her. The letter is informal, but she asks them to include these details:

  • Why they are taking the class
  • What their expectations are for the class
  • What their background in math is (including what courses they have taken and how they have felt about the subject in general)
  • What their learning style is
  • Whether the class (so far) is what they expected when they enrolled
  • What grade they think they will likely earn in the class
  • What efforts they are willing to put in to achieve the highest grade possible

These letters provide Wong with insight into each student’s attitude about the class and about math overall, while forcing students to think about their math mindset and any preconceived notions about their abilities—right or wrong. “This letter creates accountability on the students’ part,” says Wong. “It is, in a sense, a self-reflection, a self-set expectation, and an internal promise to themselves.”

Once Wong has a chance to review the letters, she tells students that she knows they are good enough to improve (regardless of what their writings might claim). She also asserts that because they are good enough, they need to determine how they can improve—and be willing to dedicate the effort.

Provide mindful feedback by offering specific solutions

The “how” part of the above equation comes to life in the feedback Wong shares on students’ math work. While she is supportive, Wong is also very transparent with her comments. She believes that it is only fair to be honest.

“There’s a lot of sugarcoating in comments teachers give, and I don’t believe it’s healthy or beneficial for the students to think everything is rosy when it’s not,” she says. However, she gears each of her comments toward something very specific that the student can improve on—and always provides insight to guide them toward that improvement.

“If you just [tell a student], ‘You’re not doing well,’ it’s very negative,” she says. “If you propose a solution, the student will know you’ve taken the time to think about his or her problem, so they know you care. And if they can learn how to [improve] themselves with guidance, there is a chance that the student will try to replicate the success him- or herself.”

Provide practice in a mindful manner

For all online quizzes, Wong allows students to make two attempts: The first attempt is to get an idea of the type of questions they will be encountering; the second is a more official version of the quiz.

Between attempts, students have the opportunity to study more, watch videos that explain the concepts, read the textbook, and review the homework. They almost always get a better grade on the second round, and that is the grade Wong records.

This strategy increases students’ confidence and teaches them how to use available resources—something that boosts their confidence in their ability to continue to find success long after they leave her classroom.

Require mindful reflection after major tests

When students get tests back, Wong asks them to consider a few key points about their grade. These include:

  • Are they happy with the results? Explain why or why not.
  • What did they do (or not do) to generate those results? Give some examples. What can the student and Wong do to improve on the situation?
  • Do they wish they had studied more or looked for help? Looking toward the next test, what (if anything) do they plan to do differently, and what do they want to improve on to get their desired grade?
  • What type of mindset were they in that let them achieve the results they wanted? Where there any challenges (personal or academic) that affected their test result that they would like Wong to know about?

The answers provide insight into what went wrong (or right) for the students, and they provide students with a psychological framework to follow for their next test. “I always look for ‘bite-sized’ little steps that will lead to a more significant improvement,” Wong explains. “Too big a goal can be overwhelming, and students might get discouraged and lost in their progress toward their goals.”

Embrace mindfulness outside of class

Wong encourages students to practice similar mindful reflection on their work in other courses, especially in those in which they feel less confident or capable. Wong believes that ability and capability complement each other in the process of improving oneself mindfully. Someone who feels able will become more capable (and confidence will come as a side effect). Someone who feels capable will begin to feel more able. It is Wong’s hope that students will internalize this self-improving process and find that it becomes a positive, ongoing cycle.

After learning Wong’s techniques for reflection, students begin to understand the best ways to reap positive results in all of their classes. They remember the things that worked well for them in math class, then use those successes to expand their repertoire of strategies for solving problems in other subjects—and in life.

Student feedback

Students feel that Wong’s approach creates an especially rewarding classroom environment. Here is a look at some of the feedback she has received recently”

“Dr. Wong’s method of teaching is designed to help you not only succeed but to also change how you think of math.… I have never met a teacher that leaves me feeling so excited to learn.”

“As a teacher, Dr. Wong is not only there to help you succeed in her class, but with your education as a whole. Dr. Wong thrives to make the learning environment a rewarding environment in which you feel not only supported but comforted as well. To Dr. Wong, students are more than students, they are in a family.”

“Dr. Wong makes sure each and every one of her students are actually absorbing the material she is teaching. Dr. Wong wants to see all her students succeed.”

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