Sometimes students develop negative mathematical identities because their teachers have had low expectations of them. Placing a student in a “low-ability” group can powerfully reinforce a negative mathematical identity.

Students who struggle in mathematics typically spend more time on skills-based activities than their mathematically confident peers. This means that they have fewer opportunities to stretch themselves intellectually or to develop the resilience that comes from grappling with challenging problems. It can also make mathematics seem boring and irrelevant.

… teachers may inadvertently influence the achievement of their students if they are not aware of the potential of the expectations they form about students. Similarly, if the teacher feels that students in a low-achieving group cannot solve multi-step problems and so does not pose them, the students will not learn how to solve them.

          Sullivan (2011), page 42

Students need to become familiar with the pleasure that arises from solving a challenging problem or from making sense of mathematical ideas.

Giving students the opportunity to engage with challenging problems shows that you recognise and respect their capacity to think mathematically. 


  • Examine how strongly you believe that all students can become powerful learners of mathematics.
  • Take particular care with grouping arrangements.
  • Ensure that tasks provide adequate challenge.

Back to Resource 1: Fostering positive mathematical identities