Maybe your child is a junior or senior; maybe she’s already in college. You know she’s bright and she’s got an amazing future ahead of her — but that doesn’t mean classes aren’t hard. Research shows, and you know, that calculus is a course that changes the direction of careers forever:
- ace that high school AP test and colleges open their doors wide; struggle with the course or the test and watch the opportunities narrow
- pass those freshman math requirements with flying colors and your child is able to pursue the pre-med or engineering track without a problem; get a low grade and STEM majors look less doable
What you might not know is that a lot of this is a psychological game. Girls and boys with the same performance in a calculus class come away with different ideas about their abilities: even if Alice and Sam both get a B+, Alice says, “I really suck at math — I can’t believe I got a B when I worked so hard. I’m just not good at this. I need to switch majors.” Sam says, “My professor was totally incomprehensible. He really sucks. Hope I get a better one next semester.” High achieving kids are uniquely susceptible to feeling that if math is not easy any more, they’re just not meant to pursue it. Kids from groups underrepresented in math get lower test scores on average because of something called stereotype threat, internal barriers that activate when they are reminded that they’re not in the mainstream in their math class.
So not only does your child have to study hard: she’s got to navigate study groups, cultivate a growth mindset, practice resiliency, make sure not to internalize failure, and battle stereotype threat! That’s a lot to keep track of along with DeMoivre’s Theorem! A lot of students leave math during these difficult years, and not because they are bad at math. They don’t know the game: they don’t know that calculus is a weed-out class, that professors may have subpar social skills but often do really care, that they can take simple steps to increase their chances of success without increasing study time. And so they drop those math classes and close off all kinds of opportunities: data journalism, epidemiology, quantitative finance, climate research, working in Microsoft’s research labs, bioinformatics… high-paying careers that allow them to make a huge impact on the world.
I’m frustrated with seeing talented young people drop out of math classes because they don’t know about the mental game. Teaching at St. Olaf College, Cornell University, and the University of Minnesota, I saw plenty of young men and women who were doing just fine in math opt out of the next semester or their demanding major into something that felt more comfortable. No, I don’t want to keep students in a major that just doesn’t fit — but I do want to students to know how to change their mindset and their major to fit them, and give them tools to bring technical skills to the rest of their career journey. More success, less pain, and more impact!