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Teacher Tips: Keeping Students Engaged in Virtual Math Class

As an avid reader, writer, and English teacher, nothing used to scare me more than the possibility of having to cover an absent colleague’s math class. Like a fish out of water, my literacy-geared mind simply cannot adapt to the math world. Now that we educators have moved into the virtual realm of instruction, at least for the time being, I am even more in awe of how my math teacher counterparts are able to reach their students when it comes to such complex skills. It goes without saying that, for students like myself who find math to be difficult to begin with, they must be finding online math instruction to be even more difficult. Another critical piece of this perplexing puzzle is this: how on earth are teachers now adapting to make online math instruction engaging?  

 

Real World Connections

Just as we would in the physical classroom, in order to boost engagement for a lesson or concept, teachers should try their best to connect the activity or information to students’ real-world problems. Enough with the “train leaving the station at a certain time” word problems and examples. Students will inevitably zone out when the material is not relevant or familiar. Instead, use what you know about your students to incorporate their interests into your math lesson, then connect the content to a problem that they might actually need to solve at some point. Making the concepts less arbitrary by showing students how to use these math skills in the real world will take engagement to a new level.

  • To teach measurements, perimeter, area, etc., have students make a plan for rearranging their room by actually measuring out their bedrooms and bedroom furniture. 
    • Visual learners can sketch a “floor plan” for where they could realistically move their bed, dresser, desk, etc.
    • Kinesthetic learners may want to build a diorama or 3D representation of their bedroom arrangement proposal using everyday materials around the house like cardboard, straws, tape, sticky notes, etc.
  • Teach percentages and healthy eating by demonstrating how much sugar is in some of your students’ favorite candies and treats. Poll students in advance and do a little research about how many grams of sugar are in some of their favorite candy bars. 
    • Then challenge students to represent those grams in tablespoons so that they can visually see how much sugar they are ingesting. 
    • Extend the activity by discussing how much of their daily recommended sugar intake is “eaten up” by choosing that candy bar. Ask students to figure out how much of a healthier treat, like grapes, they could eat in place of the candy barthey’ll be amazed at the comparison.
  • Teach concepts involving time by having students actually time themselves doing everyday tasks, like walking to the park, making their bed, brushing their teeth, etc. 
    • Then incorporate multiplication skills to see how many minutes students spend brushing their teeth in a year, for example. 
    • You can surprise them even more by asking them to track screen time for a week and then finding out the average time they might be spending in front of their phones per year.

 

Celebrate (and Learn from) the Errors

Students don’t often spend time reviewing math errors to gain a substantial understanding. Instead, they’re correcting mistakes for additional credit, or overlooking the missteps altogether. Teachers can boost engagement by capitalizing on students’ errors in non-judgmental ways.

  • Teachers may want to try a practice called “the best mistake” in which they use anonymous student samples to analyze where a math problem went wrong. 
    • This activity encourages students to take on another’s perspective, reread and review material, and look critically at different mathematical functions and properties.
    • This activity also helps to remove the stress around math quizzes and word problems by making light of errors and demonstrating how they happen to everyonewe all make mistakes sometimes. The key is to use those mistakes and improve in the future.
  • Teachers can also increase engagement by letting students be the experts and intentionally making an error in a math problem.
    • Tell students in advance that a step or number is incorrect. Ask students to discuss and collaborate in groups in order to spot the teacher’s error.
    • Remember, kids always love being able to correct the teacher—even if the error is intentional.

Math Anxiety

As much as my English-oriented brain would hate to admit it, math skills are crucial for functioning in the adult world. This means that, no matter one’s personal distaste for the subject, mastering basic math skills will become a necessity at some point. Those lucky left-brained thinkers, who tend to have more of a knack for computation, analytical thinking, and logical reasoning, relish in their ability to master mathematical concepts. However, psychology research states that nearly 20% of American adults suffer from high levels of math anxiety.

If math anxiety persists over time, adult tasks such as managing time, budgeting money, organizing itineraries, following directions/recipes, remodeling a space, and even shopping can prove difficult. Therefore, it is important that students learn early on about growth mindset and methods for improving their math skills.

Mindset

Math anxiety is often a result of continued negative experiences involving math or the use of related skills. A student who repeatedly struggles with calculations begins to internalize those difficulties and associate the struggle with their own perceived inability to perform. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, these students may develop a fixed mindset about their math skills, meaning that they will believe that they will never be good at math.

Teachers and parents can combat a fixed mindset by discussing the damage that negative self-talk can do. A child who constantly says, “I’m bad at math,” “I’ll never understand this,” or, “It’s too hard for me,” is only solidifying this notion of failure. Instead, model phrases that promote a growth mindset when children are exhibiting math anxiety. Phrases include:

 

  • It’s challenging, but I can do it.
  • I’ll try again.
  • Effort never fails.
  • My mistakes help me understand that I need to try a different strategy.

 

Consider mixed grouping 

When working on math concepts in the classroom, one positive way to reduce math anxiety is to utilize mixed grouping, meaning each group should include a heterogeneous mix of students based on their math capabilities. Varying the groups this way allows students to support one another in a low-pressure, collaborative setting. The higher achieving students are given the opportunity to lead, explain, strategize, and encourage. Simultaneously, the lower achieving students are able to practice their skills with peers and watch how students are successfully approaching math problems. Additionally, students who require more support are given the opportunity to take their time and ask questions in a smaller setting, as opposed to putting themselves on the spot for the whole class.

Use hands-on approaches

Another way to combat math misery is to front load the concept with fun. For instance, if children are beginning to explore fractions, the concept can be abstract and daunting. To ease anxiety, break out the baking supplies and show children how fractions are visually represented. Measuring cups provide a hands-on method for working with fractions. If children want a super chocolatey, chocolate chip cookie, present them with ½ cup of chocolate chips and ¾ cup chocolate chips. Ask which fraction is greater? Finished baking? Slice a cookie into fourths and eat one of the fourths to demonstrate subtraction.

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. I

Visualization as a learning strategy is most commonly seen in the language arts department. Teachers may prompt students to visualize what is happening in the text to boost comprehension and recall before, during, and after reading. This is a proven, worthwhile technique, especially for struggling readers and those with attention difficulties. However, there are numerous other ways in which educators can use visualization and visual tools to enhance learning opportunities that span far beyond the “try to picture or visualize what is happening” cue.

 

Visual Awareness

Some students, especially those with attentive or behavioral issues, often find that they are most successful when educational tasks encourage the use of spatial areas of the brain, as opposed to linguistic areas. To initiate visualization processes, teachers and parents can practice many different strategies, across any content area.

 

Math

Because mathematics can often involve complex, abstract, nebulous concepts and values, even grasping a math question can be daunting, especially for people who struggle to tap into their “math brains,” like myself. For instance, questions involving exponents, decimals, and measurements, can be very intimidating. Students may not know where to begin when working with what they believe to be ambiguous concepts or terminology.

 

  • Accompany measurements, whether weight, height, temperature, density, etc., with familiar, tangible comparisons. For example, if the question involves calculating the area of a surface, provide visual context by telling students that the surface would be about the size of a tennis court, classroom tile, standard doorway, etc. On assessments, consider providing images to represent that object, as opposed to just the calculations or measurements. If asking students about three-dimensional objects, prompt them to picture an everyday object that represents the size and shape.
  • Provide learners with opportunities to conceptualize number functions in different ways. For example, understanding exponents, like 2 to the 8th power, might leave young learners scratching their heads. If teachers provide visual context or long-written forms, students can better prepare to grapple with the task. Even a simple visual process, such as writing out the simplified exponent, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, and then grouping them while multiplying, can assist with the otherwise unfamiliar concept.
  • Post visuals around the classroom of commonly used terminology. Especially for younger learners, simple symbols used to exhibit addition or subtraction processes can serve as a subtle reminder to students during instruction and practice.
  • Consider taping simple visual resources to each desk during the start of a new math unit. If beginning to discuss fractions, use a photos of segmented chocolate chip cookies for reference. With a visual, some students may find that decimals and fractions are more approachable when they can see what that fraction looks like in a physical sense; ⅛ of a cookie is much less appealing than ¾ of the same cookie.
  • Teachers can prompt visual thinking as well by asking clarifying questions or having students come up with their own comparisons. If measuring objects, ask students to brainstorm what they think would be a similar sized object. What would be slightly smaller or bigger? Which might weigh more? Ask students to visualize patterns and proceed with the next series of figures.

Making Math into Games: Activities in the Classroom and at Home

Take it from me, a self-proclaimed math loather: when math concepts just do not click, the fallout can be extremely frustrating for kids. No matter the age, a student in the classroom or a child at home can quickly become discouraged when the math just doesn’t add up. For these children, who struggle with the ins and outs of successive math courses, real-world concepts and engaging activities can make all the difference.

Trick-or-Treat Math

This is the perfect seasonal opportunity for kids to apply real-world concepts of money, numeric relationships and directions to engaging activities that secretly build multiplication, division, analytic and ratio skills. Before trick-or-treating, have kids rate their favorite Halloween candies from 1-10, 10 being their absolute favorite. Then, help kids set up a candy bargaining/trading activity, in which they base their trades off of a certain candy’s rating. For example, if Reese’s Pieces are ranked as a 10, but Twizzlers are a lowly 2, help your children identify how many Twizzlers it would take to equal the ranking of Reese’s Pieces. Help them throughout the trade by prompting them with mathematical questions like, “If cherry lollipops are favored twice as much as orange lollipops, how many orange would I have to forego for 3 of your cherry pops?” Or, “If you have 60 pieces of candy from trick-or-treating, and I allow you to eat 1/10 of your candy over the weekend, how many pieces can you eat on Saturday if you want to eat 4 pieces on Sunday?” (**DISCLAIMER for educators—if you plan to allow for Halloween activities in the classroom, be sure to double check with parents about any allergy/dietary restrictions.)

Scavenger Hunt

A scavenger hunt activity is always good for embedding discrete mathematical practices. Provide students with different word problems and accompany each problem with a “clue envelope.” Each time their group correctly works through a word problem, provide them with a clue to lead them closer to the treasure. This activity allows for plenty of options for differentiation, including high/low grouping, varying levels of word problems, options for graphics or manipulatives, etc. Depending on student needs and abilities, math problems could involve multi-step word problems, multiplication flashcard races, geometric matching, placing items in size order, rounding to nearest tenth/hundredth and matching equivalent fractions. Perhaps the treasure could be a homework-free pass, prize tokens or extra recess time.

Shaving Cream “Swat”

It may be messy, but shaving cream swat games using mathematical equations can bring a ton of energy to a typically dry math review. Depending on age and ability, groups can swat basic multiplication problems, the next shape in a pattern, addition/subtraction problems, etc. The possibilities are endless so long as the planning and frontloading are in place. Educators will create math challenges on index cards for groups to solve. While solving, the teacher will provide answer options written in shaving cream on paper plates—kind of like a multiple choice selection. Groups will race to “swat” or “splat” whichever answer they agree on using a fly swatter. The caveat, of course, is the clean-up. However, this group activity never fails to drum up enthusiasm when completing a math practice or review.

With a little planning and preparation, these games can reinforce math concepts and build skills in new ways that will get even the most hesitant learners to join in the fun!

Ideas for Summer Learning: Math

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The summer months are full of outdoor activities and opportunities for kids to enjoy the lovely weather. With camps, vacations, and other plans happening throughout the summer months, it is no wonder that academic skills take a backseat. As much as children and teens would like to forget about school over the summer, there is no denying that continuing to engage in academics over the long break is greatly beneficial.

A study performed by Johns Hopkins found that students can lose anywhere from one to three months of learning or previously retained information over the summer. The research also indicated that math skills are compromised at a greater rate than reading skills. With such convincing statistics connected to summer learning deficits, it is extremely beneficial for students to engage in some sort of academics over the break. The thought of academics may initially be met with groans; however, the key is to turn up the fun by implementing games, challenges, or riddles.

          1.     Create math games for road trips. These math-related games not only pass the time, but they also prompt kids to brush up on their basic math skills. Games can be as simple as counting the road signs along the way, to estimating arrival time. License plates also provide plenty of opportunities to practice number recognition, subtraction, and addition.

          2.     If out on a walk around the neighborhood, ask your child to tally the animals that they see, counting dogs, birds and butterflies, for example.

          3.     Hopscotch is another sidewalk activity that incorporates numbers. Use chalk to create a grid on the driveway. Create challenges where your child can only jump on the odd or even numbers. Or, ask your child to add up the total of all of the blocks that they stepped on.

          4.     During a summer thunderstorm, teach your child to count the seconds between lightning and thunder. Then explain how the seconds between can roughly estimate the distance of the lightning strike.

          5.     A pair of dice can be a simple way to create games involving number relationships and probability. You can even create a chores gambling game. Tell your child that the number that he or she rolls will indicate the number of chores that they must complete for the week.

          6.     Mini-golf is another great way to practice counting and addition. Make sure that everyone keeps a scorecard so that each person is accountable for tallying strokes. At the end, have the kids add up the final scores—but remember, the person with the lowest score wins in golf!

          7.     Ask your teen to handle the grocery shopping this week. Give him or her the list and the budget, making sure to mention that he or she may not go over the limit and must get everything on the list. This activity allows teens to practice real-world math skills such as budgeting, estimating, and conversions.

          8.     Create your own geo tracking scavenger hunt. This type of challenge, which practices using coordinates and gauging distance, is another subtle way to hone math skills.

          9.     Puzzles, board games, and Sudoku are a few other fun math options. Gather the family together to work on a jigsaw puzzle when the weather takes a turn. Puzzles are great for fine-motor skills and shape recognition, while Sudoku offers a more advanced level of thinking.

          10.     Cooking or baking is a great method for practicing fractions. Whip up your favorite summer treats with the kids—and let them do the measuring! Baking is also a great way to help children practice following directions.

          11.     Even checking the weather can enhance math skills. Percentages and the likelihood of certain weather events, daily average temperatures, sunrise and sunset times—all of these weather-related statistics can be used to practice math skills. Ask your child to use the weekly forecast to identify the hottest and coolest days of the week. How many days are predicted to have rain? Are there any noticeable patterns or correlations between humidity and air quality?   

With a little planning, your busy summer schedule can easily be modified to include fun math activities for the entire family. No calculators necessary—just curious minds!