8 Ways To Make Math More Fun For Students

contributed by CourageToCore and TeachThought Staff

I like to think I’m an entertaining story-teller.

Even the driest of mathematical procedures (quadratic formula derivation, anyone?) can come to life when I’m in performance mode. But over the years I’ve lectured less and less, giving students more autonomy to follow their own paths of inquiry. Students work in small groups on real-world scenarios, experimenting, drawing conclusions, and solving complex problems while I facilitate, motivate, and occasionally lecture.

Here a few ways to make math more engaging and fun for students.

8 Ways To Make Math More Fun For Students

1. Make it real

Start with interesting questions: How much taller is a human compared to a carpenter ant? How much faster can a sailboat go if you double its length? How many trees per person are there in the world? If you flip two coins, are you more likely to get two heads or one head and one tail? If you double the radius of a pizza, how much more food do you get? What function is the best model for a car accelerating from a stop light, and why? Can you figure out the percentage of green m and m’s in the world from one bag? Should I spend this money? What’s the most likely outcome for a given scenario?

Every student has an innate curiosity about how the world is put together. It can seem that the abstractions of algebra are outside daily experience, and yet there are ample opportunities to draw numbers from the real-world and spark excitement. The above questions can springboard into deep conversations about math exponential notation, square root functions, probability, area, quadratic functions, sampling and any other math concept. You can also use ‘real world’ athletes, entertainers, language, music, news and events, etc–whatever brings ‘out there’ into the classroom.

Making math real can also open students to the magic of math: Thinking of it as a kind of language that you can use to make sense of the world around you is a critical shift. Once this happens, practical applications of math concepts–to calculate probability, understand money and risk, process data, and think critically become more natural for students in your classroom.

2. Create a different grading system

There are alternatives to letter grades, of course. Part of the issue with math for students is that, due to it’s binary, yes or no, right or wrong system. However, that doesn’t mean your grading system has to be that way. Do we want students’ grades more or less mirror how accurate they are in solving math problems? That doesn’t seem like our best thinking.

However you approach it, make progress visible and clear so that the grades and ‘points’ motivate students instead of discouraging them. All progress is good no more how slight or incremental. Consider additive grading, for starters.

In short, develop a grading system that motivates and engages students.

3. Create a contained but spacious ‘learning playground’

A classroom which gives students greater autonomy to collaborate needs a structure. (See my prior post on how to create expectations and effectively play the role of facilitator in classrooms centered around group work.) Building a culture of self-directed students takes patient effort at the outset, but once groups are humming along it can be an efficient and effective learning structure and a great way for a teacher to observe each student in action.

In doing so, try to find a balance between too little guidance and too much. Assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA is such a choreographed experience that creativity is a dead end by design. Conversely, if I walk into Home Depot to build a house without a blueprint the project will end before it begins. It’s important to find materials which strike the right balance between providing learning feedback and guidance and allowing students to experiment. Courage To Core math materials are classroom tested tools for algebra and geometry, and many other teachers are creating and selling great materials on Teachers Pay Teachers, Amazon and beyond which follow a collaborative model.

4. Help them embrace the struggle

In swim class when you were a little kid, you let that one lifeguard throw you in the deep end of the pool. He’d let you struggle when you were capable, but you knew he’d fish you out if you were in real trouble. Students need to know that they can visibly struggle with mathematics and that you’ll let them go at it as long as they need to. They also need to know that you’ll throw them a lifeline if their group is lost at sea. Do what you can to find the balance.

5. Promote learning through play

Students are adept at following rules, but they are often even more adept at blurring the lines. Learning through play at school can be an act of mild rebellion or it can be intrinsic to a learning environment that is designed to engage the voracious appetites of young minds.

Once you allow students to engage more freely, the classroom can be a more productive yet more chaotic place. The usual distractions still interrupt work flow, but when group work is working, students take more responsibility for maintaining the work culture, and conversation and invention are steered toward productive ends.

6. Use and model a growth mindset

Make a growth mindset the standard for learning math in your classroom. Once we have fired a curiosity with a good question and given them the basic rules of engagement, students need to experiment, fail, and experiment some more. The path of least resistance is also the path of least persistence. Mistakes are the necessary accidents on the path to deeper understanding. Of course, this process can take time so show patience so that they will do the same in their math work.

It can be tough to fit student-directed work into the rigid schedule of the school day, and tempting to sweep kids towards wrapping up when they are still deeply working in progress. As much as possible I don’t put time limits on activities, so that students can self-pace and own their hard fought success at the end of the proverbial day. In my experience, at the beginning of the year students are less efficient as they adapt to the structure but by the end of the year move through assignments efficiently and effectively.

A student-centered teaching environment takes a bit of effort to set up, but the rewards are great. Students learn to communicate, collaborate, persevere, bounce back from failure, think creatively and problem-solve more confidently. Math requires accuracy and errors are common. Without the right mindset, math can seem like a constant push for accuracy rather than a brilliant and absolutely crucial method of exploring the universe.

7. Gamify it

Leaderboards. Points for individual accomplishments. Levels. Engaging challenges. Additive grading. Whatever your approach is to gamification in your math classroom, gamification is simply intentional encouragement mechanics with clear goals and rewards. IXL is a platform that provides specific badges/ribbons for individual accomplishments that students can use to ‘check off’ specific skills and ‘complete’ the curriculum.

Used well, it can motivate students otherwise hesitant to engage in math lessons.

8. Use game-based learning

Obviously there’s a difference between gamification and game-based learning, with the latter simply using games to learn. There are countless engaging math apps, from ABCmouse and Prodigy to Kahoot, Sudoku, and Socratic by Google, that help students practice math concepts and skills through a game.

You could also try team-building games that use math like count to ten or even bring math to a game not expressly designed for teaching and learning math.