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Disengaged students? Boosting Motivation in Math

Updated: Apr 13, 2023



If you’re a 6-12th grade math teacher feeling like the disengagement, laziness, complacency, and apathy is just too much to bear… you’re in the right place.


First, you are doing an amazing job. I just know it. Don’t beat yourself up or feel like you have to find a new career path. You can overcome this.


Next, let's talk about the importance of motivating disengaged students in math, why so many students are struggling with math, and then discover some tips to boost motivation in math!


Importance of motivating disengaged students in math

We all know mathematics is an essential subject. It’s required for graduation and builds so many critical thinking skills. But math is also considered a gatekeeper to higher education and in doing so perpetuates poverty as it keeps a high school diploma out of reach for so many. Math is obviously a core subject that is required for graduation, and without it, students may be unable to complete their high school education. Additionally, many colleges and universities require a minimum level of math proficiency as a prerequisite for admission, so when students fail math year after year and continue to fall behind it makes graduation and higher education feel “stuck” behind a gate they just can’t pass through. It is crucial for students to develop strong math skills in order to unlock the doors to higher education and beyond. Not only is math a gatekeeper, but failing math (particularly Algebra 1) is cited as the #1 reason students drop out of school1.


Add in the fact that math is a subject that builds upon previous knowledge and concepts so falling behind can make it increasingly difficult for students to catch up. As a result, students who struggle with math may feel discouraged, frustrated, and overwhelmed, leading them to disengage. It is essential to provide students with the support and resources they need to succeed in math and stay on track to graduate high school.


Understanding why students have low motivation in math

I’ve taught high school math intervention at three different high schools in South Central Los Angeles, East San Jose, and Denver. I’ve had many many students pass through my doors that struggle with motivation in math and I’ve found it’s usually one of these seven reasons.


  1. Lack of relevance: Students may not see the relevance of math to their everyday lives or future career goals, leading to disinterest and disengagement.

  2. Difficulty: Math is a challenging subject for many students, and difficulty with math can lead to frustration and disengagement.

  3. Learning style: Students have different learning styles, and traditional math instruction may not meet the needs of all learners, leading to disengagement.

  4. Boredom: Repetitive practice and rote memorization can be boring, leading to disengagement and lack of interest in math.

  5. Negative attitudes: Negative attitudes towards math, such as the belief that math is too hard or not important, can lead to disengagement.

  6. Fear of failure: Math anxiety and fear of failure can lead to avoidance of math tasks and disengagement from math learning.

  7. Lack of confidence: Students who lack confidence in their math abilities may be less likely to engage in math tasks and activities.


Once we can identify which one (or ones) of these reasons most resonates with our students we can begin the important work of counteracting these struggles with our students to build a more positive mathematics future.


So how do we do it? How do we build a more positive mathematics future for students who struggle with math?


I believe there are 3 key components we need to pay attention to in our classrooms to help students who struggle with math to be motivated and engaged.


3 Tips for Boosting Motivation in Math


#1 Classroom Culture

Creating an intentional classroom culture and community is crucial for students who struggle with math because it can help to foster a sense of belonging, safety, and support. When students feel that they are part of a positive and welcoming classroom community, they are more likely to feel comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and seeking help when they need it. This can be especially important for students who struggle with math, as they may feel discouraged or ashamed about their difficulties in the subject. By creating an intentional classroom culture that prioritizes inclusivity, respect, and collaboration, teachers can help students to feel more connected to their peers and to the learning process. This can also help to reduce the negative effects of math anxiety and fear of failure, as students are more likely to view mistakes and challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. Ultimately, by taking the time to create an intentional classroom culture and community, teachers can create a more supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students, and help to ensure that students who struggle with math receive the guidance and support they need to succeed.

How to do it: We have to go beyond favorite colors and birthday boards. We have to give students a chance to share their math baggage with us. AND we have to do it throughout the year! Not just at the beginning of the year. I highly suggest doing intentional classbuilding and teambuilding activities at the start of every unit. My Math Classroom Culture Activity Bundle has wonderful ready to use resources to build the intentional community your students who struggle with math need.


#2 Active Participation

What I mean by active participation is cold calling on students and not letting participation be voluntary. I know this may sound like the opposite of what students who struggle with math need, but hear me out. Our students who are apathetic and unmotivated are never going to just wake up and decide they want to participate. Instead we need to create a community that makes active and random participation the norm. I like to have students write their names on index cards and decorate them with drawings about them. Then I collect these cards and use them to call on random students all period long. Never a volunteer. A raised hand means only one thing - you have a question. This kind of active participation is crucial for students who struggle with math because it forces them to engage with the material and develop a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. When students are randomly called upon to participate in math class, they are more likely to pay attention and stay focused.


BUT and I’ve got a BIG BUT here! Don’t jump into this active participation and cold calling with math! You MUST (100% must) get students to feel comfortable with a structure like this with open ended activities that have multiple correct answers and value reasoning. What do I mean by that? Keep reading…

How to do it: Through trial and error in my own classroom as well as my work coaching hundreds of secondary math teachers, I’ve discovered six Core Engagement Structures that have multiple correct answers and value reasoning. Most importantly they can all be introduced without math and then the math can be brought in once students are comfortable with the structure and this is the key to active participation! Check out my 6 Core Engagement Structures Quick Guide to learn more about all six structures and get ready to use resources!


#3 Equitable Grading

I’m going to put this in all caps and bold.. THIS IS THE MOST OVERLOOKED WAY TO BOOST MOTIVATION IN MATH! It’s that important.


What do I mean by equitable grading? I mean moving away from the traditional 0-100% grading system and embracing more of a master based rubric style approach. The problem with the traditional 0-100% grading system is that it creates impossible holes students cannot recover from. The moment you put an 11% or 35% in your gradebook, students can never recover and they know it. So they stop trying. They lose all motivation and reason to engage and put forth effort. Instead, by using an equitable grading system that takes into account the types of questions students are mastering (simple, complex, or challenge questions), students who struggle with math can be rewarded for their hard work and dedication, even if they did not initially perform well on assignments or exams. Additionally, an equitable grading system can help to reduce the negative effects of math anxiety and fear of failure, as students are less likely to be punished for mistakes or misunderstandings. By prioritizing equity in math grading, teachers can create a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students, especially those who struggle with math.I know this works because I saw it transform my most unmotivated and below grade level students into passionate mathematicians.

How to do it: You can learn more about my approach to mastery based rubric style grading in my free Rethinking Math Assessment guide. It’s an 8 step approach that will allow you to integrate this rubric style approach even if you still have a tradition 0-100% gradebook.


Wrapping up

If you’re looking to boost motivation in math, math engagement, and help your students who struggle with math you need to be building intentional classroom culture, use active participation every single day, and rethink your assessment approach so it’s equitable. I know it’s hard to try new things, but the bottom line is that nothing changes if nothing changes. We must create a different opportunity for our students who struggle with math in order to build a more positive mathematics future for our most historically underserved students. Share your comments over on Instagram!


Want more?

Learn the Surprisingly Easy Ways To Engage Apathetic Students without fancy technology, costly lesson plans, or pulling your hair out so you can finally love teaching students who struggle in my FREE 32 minute mini-workshop! Click here to snag your free seat!


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