Solving Math Problems and Negative Feelings About Math

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As students progress through the upper elementary grades and into middle school, many are becoming caught in a negative feedback loop, with their limited understanding of math facts and underlying concepts resulting in poor grades and a lack of engagement, making successful math learning even less likely to occur.

Ways to teach math effectively and engage students in math learning were discussed during the edLeader Panel “Differentiate Elementary Math Instruction to Increase Engagement and Flexibility: Build Your Toolbox.”

Alexa Poulin, Customer Marketing Manager at Unruly Studios and panel moderator, shared poll results about key challenges educators face when teaching math, and the data showed more than half of the educators found their students did not have the number sense and foundational knowledge needed for high-level thinking about math. Many educators also felt that math classes were not engaging and that many students were performing at levels that were multiple grades below their state standards.

Developing Math Knowledge and Positive Attitudes

The panelists agreed that students struggling with math need a fundamental understanding of how numbers work and relate to each other. Building a solid foundation of knowledge about base 10 and place value is crucial, as students can then apply that knowledge when solving math problems and thereby gain confidence and further engage in math learning.

Emma Simmons, Principal of Roxbury Prep Charter School (MA), discussed the importance of developing a culture of confidence and error acceptance in math classes so that a fear of failure does not lead to a lack of engagement and learning. This can be accomplished by encouraging discussions about how errors were found and what can be done to correct them. This way, errors are perceived as a routine part of the learning process, and any gaps in students’ understanding can be identified and remedied.

Another key part of the process is showing students that there is often more than one way to solve a math problem, and encouraging a willingness to try different approaches even if the students are not sure their answers will be correct. Students also need to be taught to “think holistically” about math problems, by considering what the problem is asking, what needs to be solved, and which steps need to be taken to arrive at a correct answer.

Strategies to Increase Learning and Engagement

To engage students in learning and flexible thinking, Elijah Ortiz, Fifth-Grade Educator and Teacher Leader at Concourse Village Elementary School (NY), explained three different strategies, all of which use a three-part approach. A “3-act task” can start with a brief video that students then discuss, after which additional information and a question are presented and prompt students to discuss how they should proceed and why. The third part of the process is revealing the answer and exploring different ways the answer can be found.

A “3-read protocol” is an approach to word problems that starts with reading a word problem like a story in order to determine what is happening and improve students’ comprehension of the problem. The second step is a choral reading that is followed by consideration of potential problem-solving strategies. The third step is another choral reading that includes the ending question to ensure understanding of the content.

The third approach is known as a “CRA frame,” in which students progress from a Concrete experience to a Representational one and then an Abstract one. This can start with the use of manipulatives, then proceed to students doing a drawing, and finally to the students performing a written math function or solving an equation.

Emily Semrad, Elementary Educator at Academy Adventures Midtown Charter School (AZ), pointed out that math vocabulary can be a crucial obstacle for students, creating confusion when the students encounter and try to differentiate between words such as “numerator” and “denominator.” To develop math vocabulary, she recommends starting with a brief video that students can just listen to and watch. Next, there can be a class discussion about what they saw and heard, including any familiar or unfamiliar terms. Students can then be encouraged to define key terms, write notes about them, and discuss them in relation to the math processes they are learning.

Semrad also has found that teamwork and competition can be effective ways to engage students in math learning and practice. One technique is a “relay race” in which students are divided into groups, and each member of a group is responsible for performing one part of a math function or providing one part of a solution to a word problem. There can also be a competition to see which group can come up with the most ways to solve a problem, thereby reinforcing the creative thinking that can lead to math solutions.

Through these and other techniques, educators can engage students in continuing to increase their knowledge and conceptual understanding of math, as well as becoming more engaged in the learning process.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, Differentiate Elementary Math Instruction to Increase Engagement and Flexibility: Build Your Toolbox, sponsored by Unruly Studios

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Unruly Studios combines high-quality STEM learning with active recess-style play for K-8 schools and districts. Our award-winning Unruly Splats platform introduces students to computer science through the creation of physically active games in our block-based coding app. Unruly Math is a supplemental K-5 math program that reinforces foundational math skills through active, experiential group play using the Unruly Splats platform. Unruly Math infuses kinesthetic learning and peer-to-peer collaboration into your school’s existing math curriculum with a scope and sequence of 80 standards-aligned activities. The Unruly Splats platform can be utilized for various subject areas from STEAM, to math, to ELA, making it the perfect tool to create engaging summer programs for students and teachers. Splats are made to be stomped on and are iPad and Chromebook compatible.

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Article by Robert Low, based on this edLeader Panel