Student Engagement

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Motivating Students to Do Math

In this excerpt from The Math Teacher’s Toolbox, the authors, veteran high school math teachers, share research on motivation.

October 22, 2020
fotostorm / iStock

Motivation—why people do what they do—affects every aspect of schooling. Without motivation, student learning becomes difficult, if not impossible. Motivated students tend to have better performance, higher self-esteem, and improved psychological well-being. Keeping motivational strategies in mind can enhance confidence to do math, which can reduce their math anxiety and lower academic achievement.

Here are some of the worst mistakes we’ve made when trying to motivate students to do math and what we’ve done to address them.

Using Fear to Motivate

Threatening students generally has a negative effect on their motivation and academic growth. Intimidating students often decreases their intrinsic motivation and causes a fear of failure. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t communicate frustration or disappointment. If we have a good relationship with students, saying something like “I’m feeling disappointed by what is happening now” can be an effective and appropriate motivational strategy.

We find that expressing motivation by explaining how the task will lead to a desired goal (“doing homework will help you know what types of questions will be on the test”) generally works better than browbeating students, especially by linking academic outcomes to unrelated consequences (“if you don’t do well on this test, you won’t be allowed to go to the prom”).

Stereotype Threat

In a misguided attempt to boost students’ confidence, teachers may connect their performance to a prejudice—for example, by saying that girls often struggle with math or that Asian students typically excel. This phenomenon, called stereotype threat, is a fear of confirming a stereotype about one’s gender, ethnicity, or other self-identified group. People who experience this idea worry so much about being identified with the stereotype that their academic performance suffers.

To minimize the effect of stereotype threat, we try not to imply that students’ academic performance is in any way related to their identity. Praising students for being “naturally smart” inadvertently implies that their intelligence is somehow fixed to their identity group. Instead, we promote a growth mindset—the idea that students’ intelligence can increase with additional effort and support.

We foster a sense of belonging among our students since it correlates with achievement, self-efficacy, and motivation. Making everyone in our classrooms feel welcome and encouraging students from different identity groups to interact with each other (through activities like group work) can also minimize the negative effects of feelings of isolation.

“Why Do We Need to Know This?”

During a lesson, students occasionally ask us, “Why are we learning this?” Since students usually want to know how our lesson is used in their lives, we highlight those connections whenever possible.

However, we can’t find real-world relationships for every lesson. Many topics—such as formal geometric proofs or rules of exponents—have no immediate connection outside of a math class. These lessons are important as necessary tools for larger mathematical concepts. Some of our most successful lessons involve straightforward ideas like finding a pattern. Many times, the simplest solution is the most effective one.

We find that students ask us, “Why do we need to know this?” when they get frustrated or bored with our lesson. Usually, they are really saying that they don’t understand what we’re teaching. In these situations, we first acknowledge students’ concerns and then try to determine the source of those concerns. If necessary, we come up with a clearer or simpler explanation.

Misreading Students

If we underestimate our students’ potential, we often wind up watering down our instruction by ignoring connections between topics or reducing math to calculator shortcuts and mindless drills. Unfortunately, this can erode student effort, especially for students who face multiple challenges. In our experience, students can often tell when we have less confidence in their ability to learn and react by being less interested in the lesson, which leads us to slow down even more.

Conversely, giving them tasks that are too difficult can heighten their anxiety. Students may develop perfectionist tendencies or get discouraged when they make a mistake. Not giving students appropriate support can discourage them from learning.

We recommend focusing instruction on identifying what students currently know and what they need to know, and then scaffolding instruction with appropriate techniques so they can learn independently.

In addition, we try to address any emotional concerns that can adversely affect student motivation. Getting to know students better helps us give them emotional comfort when they seem stressed. We also remind them frequently that learning to deal with failure is an important life lesson and share examples from our own lives when we encountered difficulty.

Sometimes, we mistakenly assume that students have complete control of their environment. Criticizing students for not buying an expensive graphing calculator or not doing homework assumes that they choose not to finish a task and ignores economic hardships or personal situations that serve as obstacles. They may have too many responsibilities at home or worry that they won’t be valued if they try and fail. Letting students know that we won’t humiliate them and providing adequate academic and emotional support for tasks can help students move past their fears.

Limitations to Motivation

Occasionally, despite our best efforts, we just can’t seem to motivate some students. Getting help from a guidance counselor or other school professional can be helpful since they often have experience and training to deal with challenging situations. In these cases, we find that putting too much academic pressure on students can often decrease their motivation and may make them withdraw even deeper.

Even if we can’t motivate them to learn all of the math that we’d like, we can help students develop important life skills, such as working with others and coping with adversity. Giving them a friendly greeting and showing genuine concern can build trust and eventually encourage them to open up when ready.

Copyright ©2020 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

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  • 9-12 High School

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