Formulas to Make Math More Engaging

By Earl Jones May 20th, 2014 10:00 AM

Raise your hand if you have ever had a student say math is boring. Keep it raised if you want students to be captivated by math and engrossed in activities.

Any mathematics teacher will tell you that many students struggle with staying engaged and interested in class. Math can sometimes become a chore, boring, or monotonous for kids. It takes a lot of effort and planning on the part of teachers to make math class and exciting time. Check out four ideas that have worked for me.  

  1. Make it applicable to everyday life. I know all teachers have heard this before. We are very aware that as adults we use math everyday, but it has to be made very transparent to students how math is all around us. When a student complains that time is going slowly and they’re waiting for recess, have him or her subtract and tell the class how many minutes there are until recess. If a kid mentions that they went to the movies with his family this weekend, ask the total price of the tickets. Try mentioning that you were using a recipe and had to convert from cups to pints. At first for me, it seemed a bit disingenuous to be this candid and explicit about mathematics, but soon after, I witnessed students becoming more aware of mathematics in their environment. They heard me speak about it many times a day and it opened their eyes.
  2. Turn boring activities into games and competitions. At one point or another, all math teachers have given a worksheet or some independent activity that is on the dry side. Try finding a way to make activities fun. Use dice, spinners, number cards, and other simple “game” materials when students are doing basic operations. Sometimes the simple act of infusing a game-like element into an activity gets students excited to participate. Better yet, make activities into a friendly competition. Young students love to outdo one another. Competitions I have tried include: challenging teams to give the most precise answer, allowing students to race against each other and the clock when practicing basic facts, and creating challenging problems for classmates. More competition equals more engagement.
  3. Let students lend a hand in the teaching. Students are obviously more invested when they or their peers have personally contributed to a task. Try allowing students to make anchor charts and posters. Have a small group of students explain a concept to the rest of the class. I have even let students make up class songs that we used to find perimeter and area of geometric shapes. You would be surprised at the creativity and collaborative skills I have seen when kind feel as though they are a part of the instruction that is occurring.
  4. Make very small, but obvious errors. I know this goes against everything you may be thinking and doing. The catch is that students must feel competent enough to correct a teacher. This must be done with skills and concepts that students have had significant exposure to already in school. I have said things such as “The fraction three-fourths means I need to divide each whole into three equal parts.” Not surprisingly, I heard 25 different voices saying, “No. Four equal parts.” Young students love to correct their teachers, and this improves their listening skills. Most importantly, it builds their confidence. When a young child knows that he has the ability to find errors in someone else’s work, it lets him know that he is very capable in his own right. This leads to increased effort and participation.

I encourage teachers to try at least one my suggestions before the end of the school year (maybe even try all four!). Let me know what works, or if you have any other suggestions for keeping students engaged and interested in math. Tweet me @Mathophile_DC.