Boosting Effort in Math Via a Coaching Model

Fall 2021

By Janae Dupree and Meena Tahiliani

Every year we notice that the biggest difference between those students who succeed in math class and those who struggle comes down to effort. As with every sport, craft, or skill, “effortlessness” is a deceptive concept. Students think that “successful Susie” just “gets it,” and they do not know that Susie is spending time outside class reviewing and practicing. Nor do they realize that “successful Sam” is taking supplementary math classes or training sessions outside of school or working with a parent, coach, or tutor every weekend.

Each year we strive to convey the role of effort in success in our math classrooms, but it often takes many months for students to trust our recommendations or to take the leap of faith required to try what we suggest. Doing so risks a lot for some; trying hard and then failing is demoralizing, and it often feels safer on the psyche not to try and avoid revealing that they really can’t do it. But we know they can do it, and boosting confidence daily, both in class and via feedback on homework and assessments, is a critical part of convincing our students to give more effort to success in math. But experiencing success in the subject is the only way to really boost confidence, and that takes effort. It is a vicious cycle that is often hard to break.

We, Meena and Janae, teach eighth and sixth grade math, respectively, at Crystal Springs Uplands School (Belmont, CA). Over the summer, we met to strategize about how to support our students after a year of distance or hybrid learning and the inevitable weaknesses in skills and confidence that resulted. We discussed how mystifying it is that every summer students know not to stop training for their sport or their instrument, but they stop studying for math for several months, and then expect to jump right back in with no loss in technique or efficacy. Why do they think that will work? Janae said she thought we should use that sports analogy in our classes and formalize it. Through that conversation, the coaching model and the Math Playbook was born. Meena drafted the Playbook and submitted it to our team of teachers for review, and we are using it in our sixth and eighth grade math classes this year.

The Playbook is more than a handbook; it is an anchor for students, reminding them of the role of training and proper technique as keys to success in math. Quotes from elite athletic training models are adapted to apply to math. For example, we expanded upon The Sports Armory’s “Principle #4: Theoretical—Understanding the Game,” which encourages athletes to go beyond adopting skills and strategies just “because [coach] said so!” The deeper understanding of purpose “improves the flow of every session and gives the athlete a sense of taking ownership over their training practices."1 Thus, we incorporate real-world contexts so that students can see the purpose of learning new ideas, and we ask them: “Do you know ‘why’ concepts or strategies work? Can you visualize ‘how’ to solve problems and how to solve them efficiently?” The role of failure and the need for reinforcement and practice to achieve mastery are front and center. The importance of optimal fitness (sleep, nutrition, etc.) to support learning is incorporated. And we will attempt to infuse this model into all of our practices for the 2021-2022 academic year. Thus, we made sure that the Playbook went in the front of each student’s math notebook, and we committed to using the coaching model throughout the year.

Janae suggested that we wear T-shirts that say, “Math Coach,” but that proved time-consuming to create, so we made lanyards for the team instead. Meena added a whistle to hers to complete the analogy, and she wore it every day for the first month of school. Janae did one better and dressed in different coaches’ uniforms each day in the first weeks of school (basketball, football, tennis) to increase student buy-in. Her students began asking what the next day’s uniform would be. Best of all, they started addressing her as “Coach Dupree” both in class and via email.

The eighth grade version of the Playbook started with a question: “Do you usually train hard for math? Why or why not?” Meena’s classes of low-confidence math students almost unanimously acknowledged that they do not. Their honest reflection was the perfect entry point, opening the door to considering the role of effort and what effective effort in math might look like.

Students work in teams of three or four in our daily training sessions (aka classes), and each one has a specified role (the contextual problems and team roles are pulled from College Preparatory Mathematics, our primary curriculum). For example, each team includes a facilitator, who, like the captain of a team, gets the group started on the warm-up and ensures that each person on the team understands the day’s tasks. It is up to the team and its members to find a way to achieve the goal of discovering the new concept, thus building agency as students own the process of learning and solving problems. Teammates collaborate and coach one another, offering explanations and support to each other as needed.

As coaches, we ask questions, correct their form when solving problems, and help them learn the winning strategies that will bring success. We also call team huddles to check and correct understanding or offer a teaching point. Homework is drafts of plays in which students try different methods and practice the form and technique they learned in class. Homework also offers leveled practice: JV, Varsity, and Pro-Athlete levels. Students can choose their own level based on their readiness.

In our classes, quizzes are considered scrimmages, and tests are referred to as “games,” which are usually individually assessed with occasional team tests. We include a pre-game warm-up in which students do a quick review of the material they will need to call upon in the game. After what students might experience as a “losing game” because of a low score (though we know much is learned even from those losses), students review their plays and consider how they could improve their form and technique. Test corrections (completed on a document Meena calls the “Blunder Buster”) include a reflection on what went well, what blunder was made, what was learned from it, and how to train further to avoid such blunders going forward.

Not only are we enjoying this coaching model, in only six weeks it is already showing results. Students are internalizing the message that training pays off, and they are handling losses with the growth mindset needed to motivate more targeted training, better form, and some skill drills for those who need it. Meena’s class demonstrated good form and a strong mastery of strategy in their first game (test), and each student is completing drafts of play (homework) on time. Janae, I mean Coach Dupree, is seeing similar positive trends with her students. Time will ultimately tell whether this model offers lasting benefits for our students. So far, we feel that this is a winning strategy.


  1. Coach Pace. The 5 Principles of Elite Athletic Performance. The Sports Armory Training Systems.
Janae Dupree

Janae Dupree ([email protected]) is 6th Grade Math Teacher and 6th Grade Team Lead at Crystal Springs Uplands School in Belmont, California.

Meena Tahiliani

Meena Tahiliani ([email protected]) is Middle School Math Lead and 8th Grade Math Teacher at Crystal Springs Uplands School in Belmont, California.