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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.

3. Emphasize Your Main Points

Don’t keep students guessing what the point of the lesson is. Put your takeaways in bold or outline them in orange, and make sure that they reappear throughout the lesson. Students shouldn’t be surprised by the lesson’s conclusion; they should be able to see the ending well in advance. It also helps to include a final page where you summarize all of the lesson’s main points.

4. Choose Images over Words

No need to insert blocks of text. You’ll be present to provide the details and explanations. Diagrams, images, arrows, color coding – the more ways you can connect ideas to visual reminders, the better. It’s a lot easier to remember a picture than a paragraph. Keep in mind that in order to be effective, the image should connected to the storyline; it should drive the story forward or illustrate an important point.

5. Address the “Why”

Math was created by people for people. Math is anything but arbitrary and haphazard, though it can frequently feel that way to a student. Above all, it was designed to be user-friendly. As often as possible, you should address the question, “Why was this math subject necessary here in the first place?”  The more students can see that math was developed for their benefit — to simplify their world — the more they will trust their ability to use it.

For example, in addition to explaining what percentages are, don’t forget to share why they are helpful and why we came up with them to begin with. For one thing, they make comparing fractions a lot more intuitive.