Student Engagement

How to Make Math Concepts Feel Relevant to Students

Helping high school students understand that math has useful applications in their lives can boost their engagement in learning.

March 3, 2022
SolStock / iStock

In a world of classifying shapes, analyzing graphs, and solving for x, it can be difficult for students to connect to and engage in their mathematics courses. This is particularly true as students reach higher levels of mathematics, where the real-world aspects seem harder to grasp. While there are many pedagogical approaches that help increase engagement in the learning in the classroom, students—and teachers—find it increasingly difficult to make math class feel relevant to their lives.

This disconnect to the content often leads to disconnect in the classroom. Enter the four spheres of relevance: self, community, culture, and the “real” world. Each of these spheres connects content to students on various levels and can be integrated into nearly any component of a math curriculum, from note-taking to practice problems to project-based learning. Planning with these four lenses in mind helps teachers connect with their students and helps students connect with mathematics.

Connect to Self-Relevance

The innermost circle of relevance is that in which the students find personal connections to the mathematics they are studying. In this sphere, teachers are planning to incorporate student interests and aspirations into their lessons. Simple strategies include replacing a standard word problem from your curriculum with one that connects to your students.

For example, when studying quadratic equations, my text posed a problem where students had to determine the height of a ball that a juggler was tossing using the quadratic formula. Instead, I tapped into my students’ recent interest in playing with kendamas and simply changed the wording in the problem. When students worked through the problem with me, they instantly perked up and even modeled how the kendama worked so that we could connect the parabolic motion to the graph.

Connect to the Community

Outside of themselves, students are often interested in and invested in happenings of their community. From their school district community to their community at large, there are often events taking place or problems to be solved that apply mathematics being taught at all levels. Connecting mathematics topics with community events and needs doesn’t have to be a daunting task. In fact, many communities have local officials, from business bureaus to government agencies, who are happy to support educators in finding solutions to real problems posed to the community. If getting in touch with a community expert isn’t possible, you can always check your local news or connect with a regularly scheduled local event.

Where I live, a local kite festival celebrating National Kite Month served as a catalyst for designing projects to use with my students. What better way to introduce students to properties of quadrilaterals than for them to build their own kite to bring to the festival? Or students in trigonometry can practice measuring the height of the highest-flying kite using a simple clinometer and some basic trig calculations. Students studying statistics can help collect and analyze water samples looking at trends in particulates, microbead pollution, or chemical composition, or look for trends in the county based on the most recent census data.

Getting students involved in their community helps them to see how mathematics has underlying currents in the real world in a way that is more accessible and real to the students themselves.

Connect to Culture

Creating culturally relevant connections and experiences for our students doesn’t simply lie in the hands of our social studies teachers. Mathematics teachers everywhere can create a culturally responsive curriculum to connect their students to the world around them on a broader level. This may mean tying content to social justice issues in our culture, tapping into current trends in pop culture, or connecting to the familial or ancestral cultures represented within your student body.

Algebra can track the probability of getting the next Wordle right in one try, geometry students may look to global cultures to see how transformations and symmetry exist in artwork around the world, and personal finance students may look into data about poverty and the unhoused population in their city. Connecting to students on a cultural level is a great way to help students expand their views on mathematics.

Find Real-World Relevance

The pinnacle of helping students find relevance in math class is helping them answer the question “When am I ever going to need this?” which is often asked as a means of saying, “Where in the real world does this math actually matter?” As the mathematics they study gets more abstract, the answers to who and what uses that math in “the real world” can diverge from your students and their interests and aspirations for their own futures. Of course, if your students have aspirations in careers that can connect to math, then you can absolutely draw out those connections. However, instead of relying on responding only with jobs that use mathematics, think about these features of real-world relevance:

  • How does the skill (not necessarily the content) they are learning connect to skills needed in a variety of contexts beyond high school?
  • What natural phenomena are modeled or studied using the content?

Students may never need to create polynomial function models in their future lives, but being able to analyze a graph of a polynomial function enables students to better understand data represented graphically and can help give them better insight into reviewing stock market trends, for example. Similarly, students may not need to use logarithmic functions in their future, but they can connect logarithms to the Richter scale to understand its importance in analyzing earthquakes.

When designing your next unit, make sure to take into account the four spheres of relevance and how you can make tweaks to your existing plans to ensure that you are connecting with your students on all four levels.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Creativity
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Math
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.