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Five Ways to Make Math Lessons More Engaging

Posted in Teacher Tools on February 2, 2011 by

One of the most pressing questions faced by math teachers is, “How do I keep my students interested?”

It’s a challenge faced by all educators, but overcoming boredom may not be as tricky as you think. The secret is to remember to illustrate the big picture. For students, math can easily feel like a tedious jumble of facts; it’s not always obvious how the parts join together to become a  coherent whole. A pile of cardboard pieces is not very interesting — until someone reveals that they fit together to create a puzzle.

Below are five suggestions that will hopefully help your math students see the method behind the madness. At Knewton, we’re focused on creating engaging online lessons for our Math Readiness program and our GMAT course, but these tips will be helpful whether your preferred lesson medium is PowerPoint or poster board.

1. Tell a Story

People naturally find characters and narratives interesting.  Stories are easy to remember because they’re not a random assortment of information. They have a beginning, middle, and end. In the same way, your lesson should have a narrative arc. It should include an “a-ha” moment, a point where all the pieces come together.

In one of our lessons on probability, we introduced a basketball player named Michael Yourdon and used him to cover a variety of concepts.

A concept like probability tends to produce eye-glazing on its own. Relating it to a basketball player students have already gotten know (Michael Yourdon! The legend!) puts the math into a context that’s easy to grasp.

Story characters don’t always have to be fictional, either. Ancient thinkers such as Pythagoras, Archimedes, and Euclid asked very basic questions about the world around them, questions that your students might even ask themselves. Tying a lesson to the historical figures that grappled with it — or simply sharing your knowledge about a mathematical concept’s origins — can help students make connections to study material that would otherwise seem remote or abstract.

2. Open with a Hook

This can be a real-world example, an interesting problem, or a novel way of looking at a familiar situation. In one lesson, we used the game of Flip Cup (which we were pretty would resonate with our college-age audience) to show the applications of probability in everyday life.

This “hook” should then reappear in different contexts throughout the lesson. By examining a single problem from different angles, you maintain a sense of familiarity (essential to storytelling) and help students to see how ideas relate to each other. Presenting new concepts in familiar situations allows them to build on what they already know.