How can we motivate students who are unmotivated possibly due to previous deficiencies in math?

Asked by
Angi Waldo

Angi Waldo has been in education for more than 10 years. During this time she has been a successful high school mathematics teacher and also served as a model classroom for best practice in the district. She is currently working as the district lead mathematics instructional coach for Rowan Salisbury Schools. In this position, Angi supports building-level instructional coaches and math teachers, providing job-embedded professional development, co-teaching/planning, and model lessons. She also works directly with district-level leaders to support implementation of best practice in math classrooms.


Build relationships with students to learn more about their math backgrounds; connect math learning to student interests

By Katherine K. Merseth

Students who are unmotivated in math have likely had past experiences in math that are not the best. One of the approaches I’ve found that can help is to ask students to fill out a math autobiography to tell me about their prior experience with the subject and their background. This simple exercise acknowledges that students may have a phobia — or pile of unpleasant experiences — with math, and allows them to express their feelings, frustrations, and anxieties. I collect this information at the beginning of the year, on an index card, and include questions such as: “What words come to mind when you think about math?” and “What has worked for you when learning new math concepts in the past, and what does not?” This exercise not only helps me to identify unmotivated students, but, even more importantly, it also starts to build a relationship between me and my students. If you haven’t built  a relationship, chances are students won’t be eager to engage in your class.

Another tactic I use is finding an area or topic students genuinely find interesting. I’ve worked with middle school students and built materials around topics like music or sports to engage student interest, making sure the topic is gender-encouraging. For example, with sports, while I’ve worked with the usual baseball statistics, I also ask about marathons, skiing, or swimming records where there are examples of successful women. In addition, I’ve taught from questions that the students came up with. For example: “How many gallons of ketchup are used on hot dogs during the regular baseball season at Fenway Park?” I’ve also asked students to bring in a question they would like to explore that they have seen on social media. It becomes both a literary and math exercise, and builds authentic interest in the class material.

Finally, I draw upon the work of Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford around a “growth mindset,” the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. Professor Dweck’s doctoral student, David Yeager from the University of Texas at Austin, is another heavy hitter in the field who has conducted extensive research on motivation. Dweck and Yeager have researched how important it is for both kids and adults to have a growth mindset. If you have a “fixed mindset” about math, thinking “I can’t do this, I only have a limited amount of ability in math,” you will give up before you even start. But a growth mindset means understanding that the brain is a muscle and it can grow and learn new things — things that it couldn’t do before — including how to solve new math problems.

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About the Researcher
Katherine K. Merseth

Katherine K. Merseth is Senior Lecturer on Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work concentrates on charter schools, teacher education, mathematics education, and the case-method of instruction. In mathematics education, Professor Merseth was the principal investigator of the Mathematics Case Development Project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Massachusetts Math and Science Partnership working with middle school mathematics teachers using classroom based cases; she also served as co-principal investigator of the Teacher Education Addressing Mathematics and Science in Boston and Cambridge Project. Read full bio

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