A sense of possibility: perseverance during mathematical challenges.

Researchers think that academic perseverance is a critical factor for students’ long-term educational attainment (Farrington et al. 2012). The ability to persist on  a problem – in the face of confusion and complexity – is essential for success and advancement in mathematics (Dweck, Wilton, & Cohen 2011). Dweck’s work proposes two distinct mindsets among students: fixed intelligence and malleable intelligence. Those with fixed intelligence tend to give up more easily and pass up opportunities. Those with malleable intelligence tend to stick with difficult tasks, believing that their intelligence can be increased.

Students will most likely encounter mathematical challenges. To be successful in mathematics requires more than academic ability; it requires sustained hard work even when the answer does not seem near or possible.

So how can we help students increase their perseverance in the face of challenge and frustration in mathematical challenges?

This is a summary of a study which examined the above question, conducted by Marshall in a school in New York.

There were 3 interventions which were put in place in order to:

  1. show that the struggle in mathematics is not a unique experience and even the most successful of mathematicians had to preserve through periods of confusion;
  2. show students that Intelligence is malleable;
  3. boost students’ self-regulatory skills through a goal-setting exercise


This is what happened during the interventions:

  1. students were shown videos of successful graduates who described their own experiences of confusion and difficulty and how they at times struggled to understand maths;
  2. students read an article which showed how the brain grows as difficult tasks are worked on; learning essentially makes you smarter;
  3. students were asked to visualise a desirable goal regarding their course; they elaborated the goal on paper, along with obstacles which might arise. As Duckworth and colleagues found the mental imagining of a desired future with the real obstacles could turn wishes into strong commitments with subsequent goal attainment.


What were the results of the interventions?

  1. Students concluded that intelligence is a combination of effort and ability. When they had to solve difficult tasks most of them stayed on task, even though some of them still showed frustration;
  2. Students considered the learning value of making mistakes. The intervention showed to increased students’ perseverance. As one of the students, Joshue, put it:


‘I completely agree with what the author says about this because while you’re watching TV, some other student is revising what they learned in class, you’ll think that they were just born smart, and you’ll let yourself down and it’ll be difficult to get by’


  1. Students did not make that they lack mathematical ability, they talked more about laziness. Having to discuss what measures they will take to overcome the obstacles they mentioned effort and were able to reflect more openly on that.


Based on the article:

Marshall, S. A. 2017. A sense of possibility: cultivating perseverance in an urban mathematics classroom, The Journal of Teacher Action Research, http://www.practicalteacherresearch.com/uploads/5/6/2/4/56249715/a_sense_of_possibility.pdf [accessed 2.2.2018].



Dweck, C. S., Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L. 2011. Academic tenacity: mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. available: https://ed.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/manual/dweck-walton-cohen-2014.pdf [accessed 2.2.2018].

Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. 2012. Teaching Adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

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