5 Ways to Boost Engagement in High School Math Classes
Teachers can implement collaborative activities that help students learn from each other and build confidence in their skills.
Recently In my freshman Math 1 Support classes, it had been rough in terms of engagement, but with a few minor tweaks and some simple strategies, it’s like new life was breathed into the classroom. My students were engaged, collaborating, and solving problems that I’ve given in my sophomores in Math 2. As teachers, we know when things in our classroom are getting a little stagnant—those times when students start to lose their enthusiasm and just aren’t as engaged.
Here are five of my go-to strategies I turn to for taking existing curriculum or content and spicing it up.
1. 4 Corners
4 Corners is a “jigsaw” strategy that can be used when you have groups of four students. First, you give each student in the group a problem (this can also be a representation, part of a task, etc.). Next, they go to their “corner” where all the students in the corner also have the same problem and they work together to solve it so that they all become the “expert” on that problem. Then, they take it back to their group and take turns explaining how to solve it to their teammates. One of my favorite ways to use 4 Corners is with functions. I put different functions on cards and have teammates find outputs for a given input or inputs for a given output.
The reason I like this one is because I can have students trade cards and do multiple rounds as long as I’m giving a different input or output each time. This strategy works really well to boost engagement as well as student agency because students have to move around the classroom and get to experience accountability as the expert on their particular problem.
2. Add ’Em Up Math
Add ’Em Up Math can be used for any problems or situations that have numerical answers. It works by giving students three or four problems to solve with a number value in the center. You can either ask students to each solve their own or solve all of them as a group. After solving all the problems, students add up the solutions and check to see if their answer matches the value in the center. If not, students work together to figure out where the error is and fix it.
I’ve seen this activity used for various math concepts from third to twelfth grade. I first gave this activity when I wanted a more engaging and collaborative way for students to practice solving equations. I had each student at their table groups solve their own problem and work together to check the final solution.
The reason I like this strategy is because it allows students to be more independent in checking their solutions instead of simply giving them the answers. Students have to problem solve and check their work through collaboration. It also encourages practice of adding skills, which can include adding negative and positive integers as well as fractions.
Stations, sometimes called a Round Robin, is probably the simplest strategy that requires the least amount of prep. This includes having students work on a different problem at each station. I frequently use stations for review or test prep, and try to make sure I have the same number of problems as I have groups. I usually have from six to nine groups, but your number of problems and groups may vary based on your class size. I usually give students anywhere between three and seven minutes at each station, although this depends on the number of stations and the types of problems I’m giving.
I also put a worked-out key at each station for the problem from the previous station, so students can check their answers after fully completing it on their own. There’s something about having students getting up and moving that keeps them focused, and the timer also helps to hold them accountable. Giving students a worked out key allows them to be a bit more independent as well.
4. Matching or Sorting Cards
The matching strategy involves having students match various things such as multiple representations of functions (graph, equation, table, and situation), multiple forms of expressions, various steps to solving a problem, or even various arguments and reasons for proofs. Sorting cards is a similar strategy, but simply involves having students group cards into different categories such as angle relationships (equal, supplementary, complementary) or types of sequences (arithmetic, geometric, or neither).
My favorite way to use the matching strategy is with multiple representations of functions and for the sorting cards strategy, angle relationships. Whenever I use these strategies in my classroom, I always have students write a justification for why they matched it or categorized it the way they did, which adds an extra layer of understanding.
You can also extend this type of activity so that students need to solve or write equations after they have matched or categorized. These strategies provide students with a little extra support because they don’t have to produce something completely on their own, but they have the opportunity to think through and practice various skills.
5. Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces
It seems everyone these days is talking about Building Thinking Classrooms, the book that’s really shaken up math education. One of the strategies suggested in phase 1 is allowing students to work on vertical, non-permanent surfaces. This can be in the form of white boards on a wall, but there are lots of suggestions for budget-friendly options such as using shower boards, wipebooks, large laminated papers, and even cellophane on the wall.
This strategy can be used with anything really, and definitely in conjunction with other strategies I’ve already listed. One of my colleagues has implemented the Add ’Em Up Math strategy (in groups of three students) with vertical white boards very effectively. The book lists several benefits of vertical non-permanent surfaces, such as students being more eager to work while standing, feeling less intimidated to write things out because of the non-permanence, and more knowledge mobility due to the vertical orientation, because they are able to get help from their peers and can easily see other teams’ work.
I think the beautiful thing about all of these strategies is that they can be used with existing content and curriculum you already have, so you don’t necessarily need to go out and find new tasks or problems. These are also all really great strategies for reviewing concepts. Feel free to explore the examples and templates I’ve created for these strategies, to help increase engagement in your classroom as well.