We all want our kids to succeed in math. In most districts, standardized tests are the way understanding is measured, yet nobody wants to teach to the test. Over-reliance on test prep materials and “drill and kill” worksheets steals instructional time while also harming learning and motivation. But sound instruction and good test scores aren’t mutually exclusive. Being intentional and using creative approaches to your instruction can get students excited about math. These 15 essential strategies in teaching mathematics can make this your class’s best math year ever.
1. Raise the bar for all.
As early as second grade, girls have internalized the idea that math is not for them. It can be a challenge to overcome the socially acceptable thought I’m not 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.” Build math equity and tell students about the power and importance of math with enthusiasm and high expectations.
2. Exorcise your own math demons.
Math anxiety isn’t relegated solely to students. Many teachers have negative attitudes toward math based on their own school experiences. Children can pick up on that negativity. There are things you can do to prevent transmitting any of your own math anxiety to your students. Avoid comforting and consoling when a student is struggling and instead express confidence in their ability to solve the problem and suggest strategies for how they might go about it.
3. 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. Think about foundational skills they will need for future learning. “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.
4. Create a testing pathway.
You may not even see the results of standardized tests until next school year, but you have to teach to it now. Use formative assessments to ensure that students understand 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.
5. Observe, modify, and reevaluate.
Sometimes we get stuck in a mindset of “a lesson a day” in order to get through the content, but we have to have flexibly thought about pacing or kids will get left behind. 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.
6. Connect math to other learning areas.
The more we show students how math is connected to the world around us, the more invested they become. Read books with math connections. Talk about the ways math integrates with visual arts and music. These conversations will help reinforce how mathematical thinking can help kids in all subject areas.
7. 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, provides agency over their own learning, and allows for 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.
8. Encourage math talk.
Communicating about math helps students process new learning and build on their thinking. Engage students during conversations 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.
9. Play math games.
Student engagement and participation can be a challenge, especially if you’re relying heavily on worksheets. Games are an excellent way to make the learning more fun while simultaneously promoting strategic mathematical thinking, computational fluency, and understanding of operations. Games also foster a home-school connection when they’re sent home for extra practice.
10. Emphasize hands-on learning.
In math, there’s so much that’s abstract. Hands-on learning helps make the conceptual concrete. Consider incorporating math manipulatives whenever possible. For example, you can use LEGO bricks to teach a variety of math skills , including finding area and perimeter and understanding multiplication.
11. Seek to develop understanding.
Meaningful math education goes beyond memorizing formulas and procedures. Memorization does not foster understanding. 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.
12. 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 many tiles they would need to fill a deck.
13. 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 as they adopt a growth mindset about mathematics.
14. Build excitement and reward progress.
Students—especially those who haven’t experienced success—can have negative attitudes about math. 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.”
15. Encourage teacher teamwork and reflection.
You can’t teach in a vacuum. 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.
What do you feel are the most important strategies in teaching mathematics? We’d love to hear. Share your ideas in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.