Everyone is a math person. That's the message from an online course developed by a Stanford University professor that teaches kids how to be more comfortable with math. The best part, though, is that being more at ease with mathematical thinking improves performance — the course raised the math test scores of California middle school students who took it by about 20 percent on average.

Attitudes toward mathematics are often loaded down with negative stereotypes. Students can see math as both boring and intimidating at the same time. Many adults feel this way, too.

Being more at ease with mathematical thinking results in improved performance.

The randomized controlled study involved 439 students who took a MOOC — a “massive, open, online course” designed to challenge their assumptions both about math in general and their own mathematical potential and to encourage a growth mindset, seeing their intelligence as a muscle that gets stronger with use. In other words, no matter how much trouble a person has had with math in the past, they can get better at it.

The course teaches students to see mistakes and difficulties as opportunities for brain growth and to realize that thinking more deeply about a problem is more important than solving it quickly. The course relies much more on visual tools than most math classes do, taking the position that every mathematical concept can be represented visually. And it teaches kids that math isn't just important in school; it's found in areas of life where people tend not to notice it, like dancing, juggling and soccer.

The average student who took the course increased his or her math score on a statewide math test (SBAC) by 0.33 standard deviations. This means that a student whose test score would normally be exactly in the middle of the pack would, on average, score higher than 63 percent of the students if they took the course, an improvement of 13 percentage points. Students in the control group couldn't take the course during the study, but they were able to take it afterwards.

You can get more information on the free class, called “How to Learn Math,” and register for it, at youcubed.org. The entire program runs about 90 minutes and is for learners at all levels of mathematics, meaning that it's not just for schoolchildren.

The study appears in Frontiers in Education.