Math strategies, regardless of grade, hover around the key principles of conceptual understanding and procedural literacy. Students need to know why 2+2=4 and how you get that answer from those two variables.
Of course, this principle gets more complex as students age, and math instruction in elementary school looks different than in high school.
Throughout, though, students are asked to build upon their preexisting skills to really learn how to do math, so if there’s no effective math class when students are learning to add and subtract, they’ll struggle later on when algebraic equations, calculus, and more come into play.
To stop this slide, reduce learning loss, and give students the confidence they need to be strong math students, effective math instruction should happen right away.
So, what does an effective math class look like?
What should effective math instruction look like?
In addition to ensuring you’re teaching students the math they need to learn and helping them see how one math skill provides the foundation for the next, there are other elements that make up a good mathematics classroom.
You need to think about how your students are learning and how to keep them actively engaged and confident about math to really solidify their success.
Here are some ways to accomplish this.
1. Create a classroom environment that inspires
This may sound more profound than it actually is, but good math instruction isn’t about rote memorization of math facts and listening to lectures on problem-solving processes.
Instead, math instruction should be about challenging students to see beyond the numbers. They should want to think deeper, so it’s not just about the answer but why they picked a particular process to find it.
To get here, pique student curiosity with stimulating questions that take classroom discussion beyond, ‘what’s the answer?’ to ‘how did you get your answer?’
Along the way, don’t forget to encourage students in their work, provide feedback, and celebrate their efforts and accomplishments.
Building confidence in their ability to do math is a great way to inspire students to keep working at it and learning more.
2. Encourage interdisciplinary connections
This tactic helps create effective instruction in math classrooms and beyond.
When a teacher can link the concept they’re teaching to another topic outside the classroom, students begin to see the value in their learning. They may even retain the information better. This often requires the introduction of real-world scenarios, which are particularly helpful in math.
Especially in middle school and high school math classes, you may hear a student ask, “When will I ever really use this stuff?” Answering that question before it’s asked can help students understand that “doing math” doesn’t stop once school is over.
When appropriate, connect math to art, engineering, science, technology, health, and literature. Show how an understanding of math can make everyday information more accessible and help make informed decisions (especially if statistics are involved.)
3. Discuss math
An effective math class incorporates discussion just as much as it requires memorization or individual work problem-solving. Students retain what they can put into their own words, so let them talk about what they’re doing with each other.
Talking through their particular problem-solving strategy with a partner can help them see any errors, get feedback from a peer, and solidify their strategy for solving this type of problem the next time it pops up.
If students struggle to have a conversation about math, incorporate other ways to get them talking. Have them draw a picture related to a problem or use a visual style of problem-solving (like a number line) which they can then share with the class or a partner.
Talking about a picture rather than a mathematical problem will still cover all the important math components while encouraging discourse and peer learning.
4. Use manipulatives
Similarly to discussing math, allowing students to use hands-on tools to work through problems can also be highly beneficial.
Especially in lower grades, having cubes to stack to solve an addition problem or fraction tiles to see what one-sixth really looks like makes math come alive.
Even while working independently, manipulatives are a great way for students to build confidence in their abilities around a particular mathematical concept.
Certain in-class and online math games can also satisfy this component of effective math instruction. Like more basic manipulatives, games help students engage with math differently. They’re fun, don’t feel like practice, and are something you can encourage students to use all year round.
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5. Continually CHECK-IN
According to the U.S. News and World Report, students posted the largest score decline ever in the history of math assessments in 2022.
Scores have been dropping since 2019, but as students recover from learning loss over the last few years, it’s the statistic from regular testing and assessments that will ensure a curriculum is on the right track.
Ongoing assessment doesn’t have to mean more testing but rather taking a few moments to check in with students as a lesson progresses.
Doing this can enable teachers to pivot when the majority of the class shows signs of struggle and possibly modify math teaching strategies to accommodate the feedback received.
6. Make math for everyone
With continuous check-ins on students’ comprehension, teachers should also catch those students who may need extra support to stay on-level with the rest of the class.
It’s no secret that a classroom is full of diverse learners, and the new ways of teaching math make it easier to remediate when necessary. This can look like extra practice for certain students or additional one-on-one time with the teacher.
Spend time planning the grouping of students. Arrange groups with students of varying skill sets and levels so that they will be able to help one another and build confidence in their abilities.
7. Review math teaching practices
Taking the information gleaned from frequent assessment and determine what's working and what isn't. You gain the data necessary to constantly review how you teach math, but it's only beneficial if you use it.
Mathematical facts don’t change, but how students respond to them does.
Using your own best practices to continually improve your activities and teaching strategies for math will help ensure ongoing student success.
This is true regardless of grade level or the difficulty of mathematical concepts.
Looking beyond the numerals in math
An effective math class meets your teaching goals and gets the required content taught to students, but that should be the last piece you look at when crafting your lessons.
What’s important to think through first is how you’ll teach math to ensure the majority of your students successfully learn.
What types of activities will you use? What outside examples will add clarity? How will you connect this math to what else they’re learning? How will you make math relevant?
Tackling these overarching areas of teaching math will then enliven the actual equations and math facts for students.
They’ll be able to dig deeper into those complex concepts and look at mathematical problem-solving in an entirely different (and more positive) way.