Monthly Archives: February 2013

High School Students Tell All — Motivation in Math Class

As a strong student with a good deal of intrinsic motivation, I sometimes find it hard to understand my own students’ academic dispositions.  What makes them choose to put forth effort, or not?  What do students find motivating?  Since many studies suggest that time spent practicing is highly correlated with growth, as a teacher I want to know how to structure class to increase time on task.

Which brings me to the panel discussion we had with high school juniors and seniors about their experiences in math class.  None of the students who participated love math or see themselves as strong math students, which is much more typical of the students I teach in 6th grade.  Here are some highlights from our discussion:

What makes you participate during group work?

  • I don’t want to be seen as the weak link / slacker holding the team back.
  • If I don’t know my group members, I’m less likely to participate.
  • If I’m in a group where everyone is low [level], then we’ll all just space out.
  • When the teacher lets us choose our own groups we pick people we can work with.
  • When the teacher won’t answer our questions, we have to rely on each other.
  • Team tests (here’s a great NCTM article) get students to work together.
  • Team roles help give everyone a job that’s unrelated to skill level.

What advice do you have for middle school students / teachers?

  • When I understand something, it makes me want to keep going.  (The seeds of intrinsic motivation?)
  • Parent phone calls would make me act right, because I didn’t want my mom to take away my XBox.
  • Parents should keep their kids busy outside of school so they don’t just play video games or watch TV all day.
  • Make students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.  They need to believe it’s okay to be wrong.
  • Finally, a student said that in non-math classes they participate more because they’re sharing ideas, not answers.  Participating in math class isn’t interesting because either you know the answer (and you’re showing off) or you don’t know the answer (and you don’t want to look dumb).
    • So how can we structure math class so that the discussions are more about ideas, not answers?


At one point, a student was talking about logarithms, but couldn’t think of the name.  All he had was a vague sense that they were the “opposite of exponential functions.”  The video below gives students a bit of math history and motivation for learning about logarithms.  Maybe there’s even an interesting discussion in here somewhere 🙂

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Students without Supplies – Pencil Problems

One of my favorite math bloggers, Sarah, had a great post recently about pencils.  It was serendipitous, since I’d just had a conversation with a first year teacher about school supplies.  Her lesson came to a halt because students didn’t have loose leaf paper!

I, too, am always baffled when students don’t come to school with what I consider basic supplies.  For me, the battle this year has been with pencils.  At the beginning of the year I had a bin of maybe 50 golf pencils.  They’re distinctive, don’t have erasers, and students really don’t like them.  My supply lasted several months, disappearing little by little, until one day I was out for Professional Development.  Upon my return, the whole supply was gone, along with my stock of erasers.

I had a discussion with each class, reminding them that I had paid for those supplies so that students could borrow them during class.  I wasn’t going to go out and pick up more, so now everyone would need to be prepared for class.  The unfortunate consequence was students going around trying to borrow a writing implement from classmates 10 or 15 minutes into the period!

So I tried collecting the pencils students left behind: a sort of “take-one, leave-one” system.  The obvious flaw here is that a student who doesn’t have anything to write with in math is going to have the same problem next class as well.  It ended up being more of a “take-one” system.  The whole thing would’ve collapsed within days if not for one valiant student who brought me several pens and pencils a day!  Alas, I needed a better solution.

Finally I bought a hundred pack of Ticonderoga pencils from Amazon.  The next time a student needed a pencil, I told him that I’d sell him one for 25 cents.  At first, a few students were outraged that I was selling them pencils.  So I reminded them that I’d already bought a class set of pencils and erasers that had all gone missing.  I wanted to make sure they were prepared for class, but I can’t afford to buy school supplies for over one hundred students.

It’s been almost two months now, and students have requested that I add erasers and sharpeners to my store!  I sell them basically at cost, which doesn’t seem to trouble kids who already spend several dollars a day on candy and bottles of Arizona.  Last week I had to make another order to restock my store, but I no longer feel angry or frustrated when students don’t have pencils–I just sell them one.


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