Teaching Strategies

4 Tips for Engaging Reluctant Math Learners

Showing students real-world applications of math helps boost their willingness to struggle with difficult concepts.

May 19, 2020
Brendan Fitterer / © St. Petersburg Times / ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Think about these three quotes:

  • “I’m not a reading person.”
  • “Reading? I haven’t done any reading since ninth grade!”
  • “I don’t do reading.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone talking about reading like this in a professional setting. So why is it socially acceptable to say, “I don’t do math”? It’s true that students—and adults—have very real fears about their mathematical abilities, a mindset that often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy leading people to handle even simple math problems poorly. I saw this firsthand in law school.

When I taught middle school math while going to law school at night, I took a class on wills, trusts, and estates. One night we discussed a scenario in which a father had three daughters. One of the daughters had three sons. When the father died, each one of his three daughters received one-third of the estate. Simple, right? But here’s what seemed complicated to my classmates: The daughter with three sons died next. What fraction of the estate would each son inherit?

Students learn fraction division in fifth grade. Law students have undergraduate degrees, and many have master’s degrees. But in this room of highly educated adults, there was serious confusion when the professor explained that each son would receive one-ninth of the estate. Some of my peers wondered: “The sons should have less their mother—how does that work when 9 is higher than 3?” What bothered me more than the error was the complete lack of embarrassment of students who laughed off their mistake by saying, “That’s why I’m in law school, not business school.”

It will not be easy to fix math education in the United States, but educators who have “I don’t do math” students in their classrooms can try these four strategies to get them excited about math.

1. Exploring Intersections of Math and Social Justice

Math and social justice add up: Although some have ridiculed the idea of weaving social and political issues into math content, real-world applications that tap into students’ strong sense of fairness and justice are powerful motivators for diving into rigorous math concepts.

“I don’t do math” students who love being tucked away with a book at their neighborhood libraries may perk up when they understand the numerous mathematical implications of completing the census, for example. And a circle is the set of all points equidistant from a specific point, but when that specific point is an elementary school in a low-income community and students need to figure out how far they would need to walk to access a grocery store for healthy food options, the equity issue of food deserts may be compelling enough that they grapple with the geometry.

2. Leveraging Healthy Competition as Motivation

Competition only works if competitors are motivated to compete, and if your math competitions are based on who finishes the fastest or who gets the most right answers, you have created a perfect setup for disengaged students to give up before they even start.

For this reason, leveraging competition as a motivation strategy works best when students compete against themselves. How many consecutive problems can I answer correctly? Can I break my own record once a week?

Competition can also be motivating for disengaged students when they’re part of a team effort. The stakes are somewhat lower when they aren’t on their own, for one thing. When their successes, however few or small, count toward a class total in a competition against different classes, these students may feel more motivated because they’re helping their team succeed.

3. Emphasizing “Math and...”

“I don’t do math” students may hate fractions. But if they love playing music, that’s a perfect opportunity for “math and”: Fractions connect seamlessly with rhythmic patterns, time signatures, and the length of notes in musical pieces. Budding hip-hop artists might find graphs of trigonometric functions far more compelling when “math and” leads student rappers to understand beats per minute as the frequency and class DJs to recognize the period as a value that shifts based on slowing down or speeding up a beat loop.

Math is everywhere. Take advantage of interdisciplinary applications because you may be just one “math and” connection away from giving an “I don’t do math” student a compelling reason to fall in love with math.

4. Explaining That “I Don’t Do Math” People Are Crucial in STEM Fields

As a computer science graduate–turned–math teacher, I had many conversations early in my career that went like this:

Student: I don’t like math.

Me: But math is so important for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Student: Didn’t I just tell you I don’t like math? Why would I want to spend my life doing something I don’t like doing?

Fortunately, there’s a very good response to that question: The future workforce requires flexible, adaptable thinkers, and learning how to learn is crucial. Lessons learned from math struggles give students a huge leg up because they know how to struggle, are willing to struggle, and know how to leverage 21st-century collaboration skills to work with others to push through the struggle.

Thomas Edison was an “I don’t do math” person who exemplified the value of learning how to learn. He considered himself deficient in math, lacking an understanding of scientific formulas like Ohm’s law even as he invented the incandescent lamp. How did this owner of over 1,000 patents become such a prolific inventor? Edison was great at assembling teams and pushing them to think creatively. He celebrated mistakes and surprising results, and his story is proof that “I don’t do math” people can play a crucial role in STEM fields.

It’s OK for educators to dream of a pi-in-the-sky world where everyone cares deeply about math. But we have to be rational and understand that for reasons out of our control, “I don’t do math” students will almost always be in our classrooms. These four powerful but practical tools can help educators negate students’ negative relationship with math and turn it into a positive.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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