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One of the frustrations many math teachers have is in getting their students engaged in the class material. Many students see math as an impossible subject they will never be able to understand. Others see it as a requirement, and hence their main goal is in memorizing enough material to get the necessary grade.

A good way to overcome this is by {engaging} students in the material. It’s difficult to do this with more technical or involved areas of math, but it’s relatively easy to do with the basic concepts. Here are two ways for doing that:

– Ask them to explain the concept in their own words.

For example, if you are teaching statistics, and asking students to calculate confidence intervals based on a sample, make sure they can apply the formula and recognize when to use it, but also be sure to question them about the reasoning behind what they are doing: taking information about a sample from a larger population, and using it to determine information about the broader population.

By doing this, you will again help them to raise their actual test scores, and helping them understand the basics of what is going on.

– Include problem-solving type questions.

Depending on the class, you can do this as part of the curriculum, or as introductory warm-ups to the material.

For classes that are already problem solving oriented, like Discrete Math classes, you can introduce these problems as part of the curriculum. Emphasize that they are like riddles, or even like Sudoku puzzles, but more involved, more fun, and more practical.

For classes that are not problem solving oriented, where memorization is the name of the game, like most Differential Equations classes, you can start the class by including a somewhat related problem solving riddle. Point out that the exercise is fun and meant to get the students’ problem solving muscles going.

I found that this helps to engage even the most disinterested students, the ones who are just taking the class to satisfy a requirement. They’ll likely remember these exercises much longer than they remember the actual class material.

One of my own English teachers, my freshman English teacher Ms. Girard, did this as well. She gave us 10 minute journal exercises at the beginning of each class. These were questions designed to get us thinking and writing. They didn’t always pertain to the course material, but 15 years later I still remember them and found them fascinating.

If you make reasoning and problem-solving an integral part of your class, you’ll be able to exercise your students’ problem solving and reasoning glands, and they will be able to use these no matter what field or profession they go into.

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