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How to Build Math-Motivated Students

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Somewhere right now, a student is struggling with math. But is their struggle productive or pointless? The answer depends on one thing: motivation. The fact is, it takes patience and perseverance to build any skill, such as phonological awareness for budding readers or math fluency for budding mathematicians. But when students are motivated to keep going, they're on a sure path to mastery--even in the middle of setbacks and failure. What Motivates Math Learning? It's a given that no two students are alike. Clearly, what motivates one may not work for another. Moreover, each student needs a variety of problem-solving skills. In math--as in life--there may be more than one "right" answer. Given the complexity of this process, what motivators are best?

Somewhere right now, a student is struggling with math. But is their struggle productive or pointless? The answer depends on one thing: motivation.

The fact is, it takes patience and perseverance to build any skill, such as phonological awareness for budding readers or math fluency for budding mathematicians.

But when students are motivated to keep going, they're on a sure path to mastery--even in the middle of setbacks and failure.

What Motivates Math Learning?

It's a given that no two students are alike. Clearly, what motivates one may not work for another.

Moreover, each student needs a variety of problem-solving skills. In math--as in life--there may be more than one "right" answer. Given the complexity of this process, what motivators are best?

Real-world connections

If students think math is irrelevant to their lives, they won't be excited or motivated in math class. However, when students see how math works in real-life situations, they'll be more willing to stick with a problem (see 6 Everyday Examples of Math in the Real World).

A thoughtful environment

Before math can really stick, kids need time to think about the problems they're solving. Using a math journal is one way that students can visualize their math thinking and learn which strategies are most helpful.

Talking over strategies with teachers or peers can also encourage kids to slow down and think about the problem-solving process.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators

Human nature being what it is, sometimes old-fashioned motivators are key to math success. If kids finish a particular number of lessons or meet their classroom goal in another way, built-in rewards can build confidence and renewed excitement.

For example, Imagine Math lessons reward students with a given number of points upon completion. Students then redeem these points in a variety of ways, from customizing their avatar to gaining extra free time during class.

A "mistakes are okay" climate

It's one thing to say that mistakes are okay. But effective teachers also help students see that "wrong" answers are really just clues to solving a puzzle. Even a few post-test inquiries about students' thought processes can shed light on where they experienced setbacks--and why.

When students see mistakes as necessary to the growth process, they'll feel better about making those mistakes.

Charitable opportunities

Sometimes, kids just need a chance to focus outward. That's why in Imagine Math, students can choose to donate their earned points to a charitable cause--perhaps with a donation to the Red Cross or to the local food bank.

As Imagine Math students show us again and again, math motivation may be just as simple as doing good in the community.

Math Success in North Carolina and Texas: A Case Study

So, what happens when kids are truly motivated to learn math? As we've seen in our ongoing Imagine Math contests, when kids are truly motivated by math, they'll go the extra mile and complete thousands of complex math tasks every day.

Case in point? Our recent March MATH Madness (MX3) competition.

During March 2017, thousands of students across the country came together to strengthen their math skills through a little healthy competition. Here are the numbers:

• More than 13,000 schools and two million students competed.
• It took five weeks to narrow down contestants to the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four.
• The two winning schools completed a whopping 8,845 math hours, 34,729 math lessons, and 808,426 complex math problems.
KIPP Connect Primary School and Hobbton Middle School: A winning combination

What does it take to motivate math learning?

For the enthusiastic students at KIPP Connect Primary School in Houston, TX, good old-fashioned school pride and bragging rights went a long way, motivating students to spend 7,045 cumulative math hours on Imagine Math. What's more, 2,287 of these hours were done outside of class. We congratulate them on their first-place award!

Likewise, students at Hobbton Middle School in North Carolina worked night and day on the program--even spending an entire day on math during the last week of the program. In the end, 66 middle schoolers spent over 1,800 hours on Imagine Math, completing a total of 5,696 math lessons. That's dedication!

The Takeaway

When students realize that math matters in their lives, their motivation arises naturally--even amid setbacks and occasional frustrations. At Imagine Learning, we love seeing students motivated to learn and grow.

Here's our takeaway: math matters in real life and in the lives of today's students. And when kids see the real-life benefits math skills can bring, they'll move heaven and earth to build those skills.

What are your favorite ways to motivate math learning in your classroom? Share them with us in the comments below.

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