graphic of a report card

Attitude is the Key to Success

Heather Knill-Grlesser

In our increasingly technological world, it is essential that students develop their skills in mathematics. My action research project began with a review of the Summary of Attitudes of Grade 3 Students in our school from the 1998 Grade 3 EQAO Provincial Assessment. I was concerned with the response to the following statements by the Grade 3 students:

“I like mathematics”
Girls - 50%; Boys - 38%

“I am good at mathematics”
Girls-31%; Boys-44%

The way we teach math should be driven by what we believe to be important. I wanted to bring my teaching practice closer to my belief that “attitude is the key to success.” My question for my action research project, therefore, became: “How can I use quality math/literature materials to improve students’ attitudes towards math?”

Taking the Risk

I took a critical look at the way I was teaching math and the resources I had available. I wanted to design a complete math program that would improve students’ attitudes towards math and consequently their success in math. I envisioned a complete math program to include:

  • use of quality resources;
  • math/literature activity centres;
  • problem-of-the-day challenges;
  • integration of math across the curriculum; and
  • math journals.

I attended Brant Action Research Network (barn) sessions for information and peer support and learned how to use math/literature materials. I purchased some of these materials and created the corresponding activities. I decided to collect data from teacher journals, teacher/critical friends, photographs, parent and student math attitude surveys and student math journals.

The Process Begins

As well as being interested in my students’ attitudes toward math, I was also interested in the attitudes of their parents. As I began this Action Research Project, I designed a Parents' Math Attitudes Survey and sent it home. Students’ completed a How I Feel About Math Survey periodically after finishing various math strands.

My complete math program began with the use of high-quality resources. I used the Interactions 3 math texts (1995) and Practice On Your Own masters to support my math program. Students were encouraged to use manipulatives with each new skill taught and to complete assigned tasks. I felt it was important to reinforce and develop problem solving skills in math and designed daily “problem of the day” challenges using Gage Mathematics Assessment Activities for Grade 3 (1999).

A component of each science and social studies unit I created from the Ontario curriculum documents was integration of math. Math was also integrated into music, art, health, and computer technology lessons as well.

My question encouraged me to look for creative ways to teach math using a literature-based approach. The first activities I developed were activity centres to accompany literature-based math packets from Wintergreen. The story which accompanied the math manipulatives was math based and the activities were designed to reinforce the math concept.

I developed a math rubric to assess the students at each of the activity centres. Students rotated through the centres in groups of four and each student had their own copy of the story to read in a guided reading approach. As the second term ended, students became more confident in writing about their learning and I expanded the student attitude surveys to include math journals.

Parent Partnerships

My complete math program seemed to be missing something. I reviewed my Parents' Math Attitudes Surveys and discovered I had not addressed a very important issue; partnership with parents in math. One parent wrote, “Yes, I can help my child but I would like to learn how he is taught at school, so when he has homework, we can use the same system at home so math homework will be less confusing for him.”

Parents commented on “Friday File”comment sheets and “Report Card” comment sheets that they were unsure of the new curriculum when assisting their children. They wanted more active roles in their children’s math programs, but were unsure of the best way to help. I needed to develop strategies to foster positive attitudes in math for both parents and students. I then adjusted my action research question as follows: “How can I use quality math/literature materials to develop programs to improve students’ attitudes and positive parent interaction in math?”

The Mathtotes take-home activities program by Sandy Woodcock (1995) was a resource I wanted to develop for my classroom. Mathtotes is a mathematics lending library. Mathtotes are created from empty Pringles Chips containers with a mathematics game or activity inside. Included in the tote are all materials required to complete the assignment or game (worksheets, manipulatives, crayons, dice, counters, etc.) Mathtotes are divided into six strands; logic, geometry, numbers, measurement, patterning, and statistics and probability. Students and parents complete a Mathtotes evaluation sheet each week in their math journal. Mathtotes enable parent and child to work together to build and strengthen positive attitudes towards mathematics. The concrete materials and game-like activities make learning fun and reinforce important math concepts and skills.

Voices of Success

At our February barn meeting, Cheryl Black stressed the importance of validating your project by getting other opinions. The BLD (behaviour/ learning disabled) class is integrated into my program throughout the day. I asked the BLD teacher, Cindi Sharp, if she would comment on my class because she often works with my students. Cindi wrote:

“As the year has progressed, Mrs. Knill-Griesser’s grade 3/4 class, as a whole, has improved its attitude towards math. Students have become better risk takers and seem more willing to perform various math tasks. The different math centres and activities offered to them this year have presented math in a fun, non-threatening manner that has appropriately challenged their thinking while encouraging them to draw upon their various skills. These experiences have all contributed to helping them improve their confidence in their math ability which in turn has lead them to have a more positive attitude towards math.”

Cathy Theophilus, the educational assistant who assists in my class wrote:

“When Heather first introduced geometric solids, her students were unable to share a lot of information about them. Through the use of hands-on study using a variety of learning strategies and different materials (e.g., solid wooden forms and the building of their own solids using paper and toothpicks), the students became excited to share their new knowledge. Students demonstrated this by being able to answer a variety of questions and give demonstrations to others.”

During parent-teacher interviews, Tanya’s mother commented that her daughter’s confidence in reading and math had increased dramatically. In turn, this had improved her academic achievement. When asked to write in her math journals about her favourite math subject, Tanya wrote, “My favourite math subject is multiplication. When we first learned it, I was so frustrated. I panicked! But now I really, really like math.”

In fact, Student Math Attitude Surveys showed a definite improvement from September 1998 to February 1999. In February, 20 out of 22 students responded that they liked math, compared to 11 out of 22 in September. In February, 17 out of 22 students responded that they were good at math,compared to 11 out of 22 in September.

Nick, a quiet, shy, reserved, and, “How-fast- can-I-get-it-done?” student was an enthusiastic participant in math journals. He wrote, “I think this math today is important because math is everywhere, like for example variety stores. Math sometimes is challenging, but I usually get it done. I like math. It’s fun but sometimes it stumps me. My sisters like math and I guess it runs through the family.”

Students were confidently completing “problem-of-the-day” real-world math questions. When asked to list things that had six, 12, and 60 in their design, one student replied, “An ant has six legs. Roses are sold by the dozen. A large box of Timbits has 60 in them!”

Voices of Frustration

Responses on attitude check lists were a direct reflection on the reinforcement of the math skill at home. In my journal entry of February 24, 1999, I wrote, “Students are very apprehensive about completing multiplication worksheets. Although I have asked parents to assist students with multiplication facts at home in the past two newsletters, students are commenting that they are not receiving assistance at home. There were many groans when I asked students to write in their math journals about multiplication.”

I was concerned that parents’ math attitudes may have a direct reflection on the attitudes of their children. On the Parents' Math Attitudes Survey I asked, “What has your child learned in Math lately?” One parent responded, “That’s your job. You’re the teacher! Don’t you know?” This student, unfortunately, did not show an improvement in his math attitudes.


I am confident that my action research improved my students’ attitudes in math. My student- attitude surveys showed an improvement in students’ responses to liking math and being good at math. My peer teachers and critical friends have noticed a definite improvement in the attitudes of my students, not only in math but also in risk taking and problem solving. Student math journal comments are positive, incorporating reflection and relating in the responses. Entries in my own journal show growth in the development of positive attitudes in my students.

Next Steps

My Math totes lending library is in its infancy. It will be interesting to read parents’ comments to determine whether we succeeded in reinforcing important math concepts and skills at home.
I hope this will encourage positive parent interaction in math. Curriculum planning continues, with math integrated across the curriculum. The teacher librarian is purchasing literacy books that reinforce math concepts and skills and these will be added to our math/literature activity centres for every grade. In the classroom, I continue to reinforce my belief that “attitude is the key to success!”

Heather Knill-Griesser undertook this action research project while teaching grade 3/4 at Graham Bell-Victoria School, Brantford. She is currently Curriculum Assistant, Primary Division, for the Grand Erie District School Board.

This article originally appeared on-line in the Ontario Action Researcher, Vol. 3, Issue 1, (2000). For more articles on action research projects, visit the Ontario Action Researcher at


Allen, Pamela. (1982). Who sank the boat? New York: The Putnam & Grosset Group.
Flewelling, Gary. (1999). Mathematics assessment activities. Toronto: Gage.
Hutchins, Pat. (1986). The doorbell rang. New York: William Morrow & Company.
Interactions. (1995). Toronto: Ginn.
Jonas, Ann. (1984). The quilt. Toronto: Penguin Books.
McNiff, J. (1998). Action research for professional development. Mississauga: Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation.
Reid, Margarette S. (1990). The button box. Toronto: Penguin Books.
Schwartz, David M. (1985). How much Is a million? New York: William Morrow & Company.
Viorst, Judith. (1988). Alexander, who used to be rich last Sunday. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.
Walsh, Ellen Stoll. (1991). Mouse count. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Wintergreen Learning Materials Catalogue, Particularly recommended: LC5040X - Literature-Based Math. LA853 - Quilt Patterns Kit. LAI 71 - The Button Box Kit. LC5044 - Who Sank the Boat? LC5043 - Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday. Woodcock, Sandy. (1995). Mathtotes. Don Mills: Addison-Wesley.