Parental Beliefs About Productive Struggle and Their Link to Homework-Helping

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Mícheál Marsh, Los Angeles, CA

The March 2020 issue of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education published a study titled “Parental Beliefs on the Efficacy of Productive Struggle and Their Relation to Homework-Helping Behavior.” One of the recommendations is for school districts to provide guidance to parents on how to help their students with homework. The study specifically looked at the influences that parents’ implicit and explicit beliefs about productive struggle have on how they help their students, along with the influence of the specific parent’s or student’s sex.

CPM, research, and the Common Core State Standards Mathematics (CCSSM) support productive struggle as an effective teaching strategy in mathematics. But parents have doubts. The study suggests that these doubts are related to how often parents help their student. The study reports that more fathers than mothers believe that productive struggle is an effective teaching tool. The study also observes that if the parent believed their student was good at math, then they were more likely to believe in the effectiveness of productive struggle.

The study defined productive struggle “as the act of expending effort to make sense of something that is beyond one’s current level of understanding.” Implicit beliefs are those that a person holds but they do not know they believe them, while explicit beliefs are the beliefs someone purports to believe. To determine parental implicit and explicit beliefs about the benefits of “intentional struggle-filled learning,” the study used two different survey techniques. To capture the explicit beliefs of parents, parents filled out a survey in which they rated various statements about productive struggle. To determine the parents’ implicit beliefs, they were shown a clip of a lesson that engaged the students with productive struggle and asked the parents to imagine the lesson happening in their student’s classroom. This was followed by a survey with questions about the effectiveness of the lesson. They were also asked questions about how often they help their student and their perception of their student’s math ability. The study has some limitations in applying it to CPM classrooms since the parents were parents of elementary school children. The authors suggest these parents have a perceived understanding that they can help their child with the level of math they are doing in elementary school. The authors also noted that the online platform the study used to solicit participants tends to include people with more years of education and who are underemployed. While this study has limitations, the results have implications that apply to CPM classrooms.

The study results suggest things to pay attention to when preparing for parent nights and other materials for parents. The authors suggest that when schools request parental involvement, this is interpreted by some parents as meaning helping their student with their homework. Other research was cited that when parents help their student at home, they tend to do so in the method  in which they were instructed. For many parents this method was direct instruction. This direct instruction approach does not enhance CPM. The three pillars of CPM (collaboration, problem-based learning, mixed spaced practice) can be included at home if the parents are given specific guidance on how to employ these practices. Parents may welcome this help, particularly when the course is beyond what the parent believes they are capable of themselves. The CPM Parent Guides give suggestions to parents, but these suggestions might need to be overtly included in Parent Nights where parents can practice the suggested techniques with their student with guidance. Mastery takes time, even for parents.

The results revealed that even though parents had an explicit belief in productive struggle, their implicit beliefs did not necessarily match. The authors found that 70% of the parents said they believed in productive struggle (explicit), but when shown the productive struggle lesson, almost 50% of the parents rated the productive struggle video lesson low (implicit). Citing other studies, the authors noted that “parents might misunderstand the role of productive struggle in a child’s learning and cause more harm than good when they seek to alleviate any signs of disfluent learning.” Parents who rated the video lesson as effective (implicit) also reported helping with homework less often. The study also found that parents thought the use of productive struggle was more appropriate for their sons than for their daughters. Additionally, the study observed that parents who perceived that their student was good at math were more likely to believe implicitly and explicitly in productive struggle. Interestingly, the parental belief in their student’s math abilities did not have any relation to how often they helped their student with math homework.

Even though parents may think they support productive struggle, they should be encouraged to be mindful of the indirect messages they send to their students about productive struggle and gender equality in math. As parents, it is important to model how struggle and failure help one learn. Schools need to actively help parents implement strategies for working with their students at home.


Vazquez, S. R., Ermeling, B. A., Ramirez, G. (2020).  Parental Beliefs on the Efficacy of Productive Struggle and Their Relation to Homework-Helping Behavior.  Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 51(2), 179-203. doi:

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Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

The Building on Instructional Practice Series consists of three different events – Building on Discourse, Building on Assessment, Building on Equity – that are designed for teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM instructional materials and who have completed the Foundations for Implementation Series.

Building on Equity

In Building on Equity, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Essential questions include: How do I shift dependent learners into independent learners? How does my own math identity and cultural background impact my classroom? The focus of day one is equitable classroom culture. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture. The focus of day two and three is implementing equitable tasks. Participants will develop their use of the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Meaningful Mathematical Discussions and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will use an equity lens to reflect on and revise their Chapter 1 lesson plans.

Building on Assessment

In Building on Assessment, participants will apply assessment research and develop methods to provide feedback to students and inform equitable assessment decisions. On day one, participants will align assessment practices with learning progressions and the principle of mastery over time as well as write assessment items. During day two, participants will develop rubrics, explore alternate types of assessment, and plan for implementation that supports student ownership. On the third day, participants will develop strategies to monitor progress and provide evidence of proficiency with identified mathematics content and practices. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

In Building on Discourse, participants will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rich tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices incorporated through intentional and reflective planning.