Addressing Local Math Misconceptions


Over the past week I had time to disconnect a bit and spend time with family. I was able to stay with relatives in another state and spent most of the time catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while. It was a great time to refresh and reflect on the past year.  While relaxing one relative in particular asked me about this “new” math that’s in the schools now. I was asked why schools are changing how they teach math and why it needed to change. Specifically she spoke of the different strategies used to compute numbers.  I’m assuming she meant the extensive use of the number line and compatible numbers.  I defended the reasons for a more conceptual understanding of mathematics, especially at the elementary level. Many of the “new” strategies help build that understanding and enable students in developing a foundational understanding of numbers. The relative was receptive and asked more questions related to this topic. I felt like her understanding of the topic became clearer as we discussed the use of  multiple strategies utilized to teach computation. This was a small part of our longer conversation, but the topic had me thinking about how to provide opportunities to address misconceptions. In particular, I thought how my conversation could apply to addressing math misconceptions in schools.

I feel like one of the more important issues with student misconceptions stems from a lack of addressing them. They tend pile up and build over time. I vaguely remember having a math teacher that asked if his students had any questions. I remember looking around and wondering if I was the only one in the class that had multiple questions. Unfortunately I kept my hand down even though I was lost. The teacher then quickly surveyed the room and seeing that no one had their hands up, moved onto the next topic. I found that the less I asked questions that less comfortable I was with the current concept and the process continued until I finished the class. Looking back, I’m sure there were other opportunities to address my misconceptions and questions; I just don’t remember any of them at the time of this writing. I didn’t learn as much as I should from the class, but I started to understand that I needed additional opportunities to ask clarifying questions.

In addition to including many opportunities to address misconceptions, the classroom environment plays a pivotal role in having students feel comfortable in offering input.  The strategies below can be used in a variety of settings. I’ve had success with the strategies, although some have been more successful than others.

Classroom Math Conversations

Classroom conversations can be a powerful strategy in gaining a better understanding of students’ viewpoints. Using open-ended math question and having groups respond to the class can offer opportunities for a healthy math debate. For example, I’ve seen some teachers use Always, Sometimes, Never with great success. Math Talks can also be an avenue in which classroom conversations can develop. Through these conversations teachers can glean important information and possibly misconceptions that can be addressed later or at that time. These types of math conversations, accompanied with anchor charts can document the classroom’s learning journey.  The anchor charts can then be revisited as students construct their understanding.

Formative Assessments

These types of assessments can take different forms. Some teachers prefer to use exit cards, while others use a quiz model. Formative assessments can be used via technology means and some may take the form of a paper/pencil quiz. Regardless of the form, the student’s response can give teachers an indication of understanding. In order for the teacher to give feedback the question needs to be appropriate. Students need to be given the opportunity to explain their reasoning or steps involved in solving problems. If not, the problem is wrong/right, and the teacher is unaware of where the mishap is occurring. Using written or verbal feedback to address the misconception can lead to a more in-depth conversation at a later time. Some students may need the reinforced conversations while others may not. I believe most teachers understand their students and at what level to scaffold feedback.


Similar to answering a question in a classroom student group, journaling can provide students a low-risk venue to showcase their understanding. Through a prompt, math journaling can allow students to explain their mathematical thinking and processes in a written form.  Students often become more aware of their growth as the year progresses.  I find that students might not know that they have a misconception until it’s brought to light.  It’s the you don’t know what you don’t know dilemma. The concept of math journaling can be used for teachers to write feedback to individual students and ask questions that give students opportunities to reflect on their writing and math process. Allowing a bit of extra time to confer with a student after their math journaling process can be beneficial as teachers may want to review specific concepts with students.

All of these strategies above seem to go well with a heavy dose of teacher feedback and student self-reflection.  Through reflection, students can help internalize and address the misconceptions.

How do you address misconceptions in the math classroom?


Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

5 thoughts on “Addressing Local Math Misconceptions”

  1. It’s not an exact parallel, but my understanding is that part of the reason planned holds are put into the countdowns of US-launched rockets is that people feel more comfortable saying “I’ve got a problem, we need to hold” if the countdown is already holding. It’s an odd bit of psychology but it does seem to work at least in this particular social context. I do wonder what a parallel would be in classrooms settings so that people who feel like they don’t know what’s going on feel like they can admit it without being the guy that’s holding up the entire class on some stupidly obvious thing.


    1. I find the psychology behind the US-launched rocket holds interesting. I feel like the “holds” in a classroom need to take on different forms (besides whole class discussions) so students feel more comfortable addressing a math issue. Thanks for adding to the discussion.


  2. Reblogged this on Math Mama and commented:
    Yes, yes,and more yes! I would only add that the “new” math that parents are concerned with really isn’t “new”. It’s being taught in a much more scaffolded, conceptual manner that will help students gain more solid understanding over time. So, parents, I say to you: talk to your child’s teacher if you’re confused. Or (gasp!) visit their math class a few times to see what’s happening there! I promise, you will see that this “new” math isn’t that scary after all!


    1. Kaci,

      You make some great points. I ask my parents to ask for clarification and many have taken me up on the offer. The questions usually revolve around how to reinforce what’s being taught in class and how to help their child. A quick phone call or meeting with the classroom teacher can help ease some of the anxiety and clear up misconceptions.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: