By Angela Ruark, M.A.
“Yessss! It’s time for math class!”
Wouldn’t it be nice to hear students talk about your math class that way? What if you could make your math class so interesting that students looked forward to it—even if math wasn’t their favorite subject?
With a few minor changes or additions to your instructional approaches, you can revitalize your students’ attitudes toward your class and toward learning mathematics.
Here are ten helpful tips that are easy to include in what you already do:
1. Pre-empt the age-old question of “When will I ever use this stuff?”
Start off a lesson with a problem situation or a real-life problem that can introduce a concept, but don’t tell students how to figure it out at first. Let them wrestle with it—just like it’s done in the real world.
Here is a fun one to introduce the need for and the concept of scientific notation:
The year is 1610, and you are working as an assistant in Johannes Kepler’s observatory, recording his measurements of planetary motion. You must copy his findings and calculations using a quill pen and ink onto very small pages. These must be completed as soon as possible or you will have to work through the night using only a small candle for light. You have heard talk among the mathematicians at the observatory about a method for writing these large numbers quickly and easily using the powers of ten. You need to figure out what this shortcut is so you can complete this task on time or risk losing your position!
Here is the first number you must write using the shortcut.
2,550,000,000,000 feet (approximate distance of Jupiter from the sun)
This lesson presents a puzzle to solve, introduces a concept, and relates mathematics to science and history. This can be completed in small groups to encourage collaboration and discussion.
2. Emphasize vocabulary in mathematics.
Research shows that mastering the vocabulary is essential to mathematics understanding and success.¹
Have a contest to see who can use the most terms correctly in a sentence in one class period. (Bonus points if a student can use more than one term in the same sentence!) Institute a “Term of the Day.” Each time the term is used, students stand up or wave a vocabulary term pennant.
3. Use hands-on and visual activities as much as possible to demonstrate concepts, especially abstract ones.
Use real objects. For example, to introduce like terms, use apples and bananas. Apples can only be added to apples, and bananas can only be added with more bananas. No matter how you combine the two of them, you will still have apples and bananas because they are not like terms. (The only way they can be combined is to make fruit salad—which you can save for multiplication with variables later!)
4. Establish a questioning atmosphere.
Ask your students probing questions. Challenge them to ask you and each other probing questions about what they just learned. Making math class a conversation keeps students involved and on their toes. Use small groups if needed to ensure every student participates.
5. Make justification part of regular instruction.
When a student gives a correct answer, follow up with “Why is that the case?” or “How did you determine that answer?” Use a court room format for differentiating between related concepts. Assign groups to present their cases to the “jury” of their peers.
6. Remind students that they achieved something every day.
Those last few minutes of class time can be used to review concepts and recognize students’ accomplishments. Be proud of your students and tell them so.
7. Love your subject.
It’s contagious. Geek out over it, your students will enjoy being in your class. If you get excited over long division, they might get a little excited, too.
8. Believe in your students.
They need you to believe in them. Especially when a subject is daunting, knowing someone thinks they can do it can give students courage and motivation to keep trying.
9. Keep it student-centered.
It really is all about the students. Research shows that student-centered approaches improve achievement.² Create a project that allows the student to choose how to go about completing it. Whether it be a poster, model, multi-media presentation, or a written report, including flexibility when possible allows for differentiation as well as the opportunity for students to take ownership in their learning.
10. Remember why you became a teacher in the first place.
It probably wasn’t for the money. Chances are, you wanted to make a positive impact and difference in the life of a child. Though you may not realize it, you are influencing your students. Be that teacher they remember throughout their lives for playing a tremendous part in their success. I still remember mine.
- Lee, H., & Herner-Patnode, L. (2007). Teaching mathematics vocabulary to diverse groups. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(2), 121-126.
- L’Esperance, M.E., Lenker, E., Bullock, A., Lockamy, B., & Mason, C. (2013). Creating a middle grades environment that significantly improves student achievement. Middle School Journal, 44(5), 32-39.
About Mathematical Matters
This article is part of the Mathematical Matters series, which examines all things math for elementary and middle school teachers, from the nitty gritty to the philosophical. Look back in the archives for classroom tips, activities, and strategies for making math fun and impactful for your students . . . because math matters!
About Angela Ruark
Angela Ruark, M.A., is a Math Editor at Mentoring Minds and former educator with over 25 years’ experience in the private sector and both public and private school spheres. As a teacher, she chased the “light bulb” moments, striving to make math fun and interesting for her students. Now she channels all of her experience and creativity into writing curriculum and translating difficult concepts into approachable content. After hours, you’ll find her working on a Doctorate degree, writing about Mathematical Matters for this blog, and dreaming in trigonometry terms.