Making Math Matter in the Classroom

Apr 03, 2024
Math Matter Image

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m not good at math” or “I am just not a numbers person”? Math can be hard and because students sometimes struggle to see its value in their daily lives, it’s been relatively common for people to identify as a “non-math” person more easily. When educators or parents give examples of subjects where students struggle, math is often a pain point. As educators, we know math is essential, so what are some ways to help move towards creating a more engaging math experience for students?

Why is Math Important?

Everyone can (and should) experience success in math, as it is directly correlated to future success. Research shows that success in math provides students with college and career options, increases prospects for future income and improves social and economic outcomes later in life. It’s important that we build classroom cultures where math success is seen as meaningful to students at whatever level of success they can achieve.

Create an Environment that Engages Students for Math Success

One way to create an engaging environment in math is through gaining a better understanding around what is important and relevant to students. Looking for a mathematical component within student relevant topics can capture attention and enable a positive approach to the subject. By using a real-world example, something meaningful to a learner, students can problem-solve, discuss their ideas with peers, and explain their reasoning—all skills that contribute to standards-aligned content knowledge and success.

Edmentum's’ Exact Path product holds a Digital Promise stamp of approval. Digital Promise is a global nonprofit working to expand opportunities for each learner. As part of their work, they have looked at extensive research in the field of learning and say the following about real-world math.

“When teachers connect math to the students' world, students see how math is relevant and applicable to their daily lives. These real-world connections are also great ways to integrate math with other disciplines to create cross-curricular connections, supporting Motivation by helping students see the relevance of all they are studying. For this strategy to be most effective, is it important to think about the relevance of the real-world context to the students' individual and cultural contexts so that the connections are truly 'real-world' for the students.”

Mathematical Practices in the Classroom

While practice in math is essential, instructional approaches around timed memorization of math facts is only one approach, and potentially does not create meaning and engagement leading to real understandings of real-life math application on its own.

For years, researchers have highlighted an instructional approach that encourages students to use numerical reasoning to solve real problems, mirroring the way they’ll encounter the use of math as adults. Numerical reasoning, or the processing of numerical patterns logically and easily, can support student success when it comes to understanding charts, trends and relationships, and can set students up for success in the professional world. Using real-world math in conjunction with numerical reasoning can create a meaningful context for math that can support student engagement and retention.

Diversifying instructional practices using research-based strategies is key when it comes to teaching math. Present students with opportunities to practice rich problem-solving and open-ended tasks with resources such as Open Middle, a website full of math problems that generally require a higher depth of knowledge than most problems that assess procedural and conceptual understanding. Allow students to create their own visual representations of a math problem, another high impact strategy.

“Students activate more cognitive processes by exploring and representing their understandings in visual form. Visual representations allow learners to exhibit what they know and can do in alternative ways that can support Working Memory during problem solving and retention of information in Long-term Memory. In particular, research has shown that creating their own diagrams of problems helps late elementary and middle school students develop the skills necessary for understanding and using diagrams successfully to support problem-solving.” Digital Promise

Utilizing a wider range of strategies within classroom math shows students there’s more to their equations than a final answer. In fact, sometimes there is more than one right answer and more than one acceptable method. Tackling these richer, real-world problems can be tougher than solving equations on a worksheet, but it will encourage your students to push themselves and view their mathematical skills in a new light.

Moving Math Beyond Memorization

Often, mathematical assessments encourage being fast at recalling memorized facts (think timed multiplication tests or rapid response problem solving challenges). For multiple-choice standardized tests, students who excel at test taking are those rewarded. Assessments with answers that are either right or wrong only recognize accuracy.

As math educators, it’s important to incorporate assessment and recognition. Using different strategies for achieving the same answer, however, can help create greater opportunity for engagement and learning to happen. By expanding our approaches toward math, the classroom provides a great environment to teach concepts like wrong answers should be viewed as learning opportunities. This perspective can encourage intellectual risk taking. Consider using “happy mistakes” to create a class discussion around how the error occurred, instead of labelling it as incorrect immediately. Error analysis is another strong learning strategy supported by research.

“Analyzing incorrect worked examples is especially beneficial for helping students develop a conceptual understanding of mathematical processes. Studying their own errors can also help students see when they have chosen incorrect strategies, improving their procedural knowledge. More importantly, error analysis can also help students identify their misconceptions and support them in correcting their understandings.” Digital Promise

Flipping the narrative around math in the classroom may not always be the simplest task for teachers, but building a solid foundation of math skills is critical to success in the classroom. Remember there’s no such thing as a being born with a “math brain," as brains are constantly shaping, changing, developing, and connecting — everyone can succeed in math.

Close the math achievement gap in your school with these recommendations.

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