We all want our kids to succeed in math. And, in most districts, standardized tests are the way understanding is measured. Yet, no one wants to teach to the test. Being intentional and using creative approaches to your instruction can get students excited about math. These 11 essential strategies in teaching mathematics can make this your class’s best math year ever.
1. Raise the bar for all.
It can be a challenge to overcome the socially acceptable thought I was never good at math, says Sarah Bax, a math teacher at Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C. Rather than being born with or without math talent, kids need to hear from teachers that anyone who works hard can succeed. “It’s about helping kids have a growth mindset,” says Bax. “Practice and persistence make you good at math.” Tell students about the power and importance of math with enthusiasm and high expectations.
2. Don’t wait—act now!
Look ahead to the specific concepts students need to master for annual end-of-year tests and pace instruction accordingly. “You don’t want to be caught off guard come March thinking that students need to know X for the tests the next month,” says Skip Fennell, project director of Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project and professor emeritus at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. Know the specific standards and back-map your teaching from the fall so students are ready.
3. Create a testing pathway.
Use formative assessments to ensure that students are understanding the concepts. What you learn can guide your instruction and determine next steps, says Fennell. Testing is not something separate from your instruction. It should be integrated into your planning. Instead of a quick exit question or card, give a five-minute quiz to confirm students have mastered the math skill covered in the day’s lesson. A capable digital resource designed to monitor your students in real time can also be an invaluable tool, providing actionable data to inform your instruction along the way.
4. Observe, modify, and reevaluate.
Walk through your classroom as students work on problems and observe the dynamics. Talk with students individually and include “hinge questions” in your lessons plans to gauge understanding before continuing, suggests Fennell. In response, make decisions to go faster or slower or put students in groups.
5. Personalize and offer choice.
When students are given the opportunity to choose how they learn and demonstrate their understanding of a concept, their buy-in and motivation increase. It gives them the chance to understand how they learn best, agency over their own learning, and the space to practice different approaches to solving math problems. Give students a variety of options, such as timed exercises, projects, or different materials, to show that they’ve mastered foundational skills. As students show what they’ve learned, teachers can track understanding, figure out where students need additional scaffolding or other assistance, and tailor lessons accordingly.
6. Encourage math talk.
Engage students during conversations about their work and have them describe why they solved a problem in a certain way. “My goal is to get information about what students are thinking and use that to guide my instruction, as opposed to just telling them information and asking them to parrot things back,” says Delise Andrews, who taught math (K–8) and is now a 3–5 grade math coordinator in the Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Nebraska. Instead of seeking a specific answer, Andrews wants to have deeper discussions to figure out what a student knows and understands. “True learning happens a lot around talking and doing math—not just drilling,” she says.
7. Seek to develop understanding.
Meaningful math education goes beyond memorizing formulas and procedures. Set high goals, create space for exploration, and work with the students to develop a strong foundation. “Treat the kids like mathematicians,” says Andrews. Present a broad topic, review various strategies for solving a problem, and then elicit a formula or idea from the kids rather than starting with the formula. This creates a stronger conceptual understanding and mental connections with the material for the student.
8. Choose meaningful tasks.
Kids get excited about math when they have to solve real-life problems. For instance, when teaching sixth graders how to determine area, present tasks related to a house redesign, suggests Fennell. Provide them with the dimensions of the walls and the size of the windows and have them determine how much space is left for the wallpaper. Or ask them to consider how much tile is needed to fill a deck.
9. Allow for productive struggle.
When giving students an authentic problem, ask a big question and let them struggle to figure out several ways to solve it, suggests Andrews. “Your job, as a teacher, is to make it engaging by asking the right questions at the right time. So you don’t take away their thinking, but you help them move forward to a solution,” she says. Provide as little information as possible but enough so students can be productive. Effective math teaching supports students as they grapple with mathematical ideas and relationships. Allow them to discover what works and experience setbacks along the way.
10. Build excitement and reward progress.
Consider having students earn points and receive certificates, stickers, badges, or trophies as they progress. Weekly announcements and assemblies that celebrate the top players and teams can be really inspiring for students. “Having that recognition and moment is powerful,” says Bax. “Through repeated practice, they get better, and they are motivated.”
11. Encourage teacher teamwork and reflection.
Collaborate with other teachers to improve your math instruction skills. Start by discussing the goal for the math lesson, what it will look like, and plan as a team to be most effective. “Together, think through the tasks and possible student responses you might encounter,” says Andrews. Reflect on what did and didn’t work to improve your practice.
We’d love to hear what you feel are the most important strategies in teaching mathematics. Share your ideas in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.
Plus, check out why it’s important to honor all math strategies.