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Strategies for getting young students interested in math

May 20, 2013

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Becoming a strong student of mathematics is about more than memorizing formulas and excelling at operation facts. The true heart of math lies in logic and problem solving. Strong tests, including many standardized assessments, feature questions that challenge students with new contexts and problem structures. Many students feel anxious about these “tricky” questions and complain about problems they’ve “never seen before”, and, in return, teachers stress over whether their students are prepared or confident enough for these challenges.

According to the University of Chicago News, researchers have found a strong link between math success and student ability to control attention and negative emotional reactions. Not surprisingly, many students experience distraction and distress when faced with a challenging math problem.

“Classroom practices that help students focus their attention and engage in the math task at hand may help eliminate the poor performance brought on by math anxiety,” explained Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago. Students become more successful in problem solving (on tests, in classroom activities, in life) when they have the opportunity to practice perseverance and overcoming frustration. Below I list a few ways students can learn to think more positively and confidently about challenging math problems.

Incorporate problem solving into day-to-day schedule:
Make problem solving a daily activity. Many traditionally educated learners (including myself) remember pages of practice sheets, followed by three or four frightening “story” or “application” problems. Today, many top educators recommend to start with application, before instruction, before drill. Give students just one question that they can wrestle with and discuss. These experiences can start with 10 to 15 minute daily challenges (as TeachHub.com suggests) and move to problems that fill half or most of class time. Take the focus off of the correct answer and focus on process. Teach students to discuss what they are thinking. When students get used to new, unexpected challenges every day, they won’t be so afraid of them under pressure.

Reduce anxiety through math games:
Make math fun. While playing games, students often forget to stress. Teachers are great at leveraging games like Yahtzee, Battleship, Dominoes and Connect Four to practice simple math facts and investigate difficult concepts. Take the element of time-limits out and use games to explore brand new ideas (think: Battleship, with fractions/decimals, prior to formal investigation). Students will see that exploring something new can be fun, just as drilling something they learned 3 weeks ago. Be sure to explicitly discuss with the students the skills that they are using when they succeed.

Put a positive spin on math:
Technology, carefully chosen and implemented, can help students become individualized learners. Some online math programs and blended learning tools provide students with a fun, virtual learning environment. With these, students should experience both practice of important math skills (like multiplication facts) and exploration of challenging concepts that force them to think in new ways. Quality adaptive technology moves students at their own pace, progressing to new content only when they are ready.

With constant immersion in new logic explorations and critical thinking, students can become more comfortable with living and loving math. Hopefully next time a student thinks “I’ve never seen this before” they will follow with, “now, let’s get started!”

Resources:
Looking for resources that will help in making Math fun for your students? Check out our free Teacher Tools, here and make sure to share them with your friends.

Joe Trahan

Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa | MEd in Secondary Mathematics from GWU, Washington DC | 6-year teacher of Mathematics in Bethesda, MD

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