Category Archives: mathematics

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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