Math anxiety is a learned trait. While up to 30 percent of people feel some level of anxiety related to math, studies show that friends, parents, and teachers can have an impact on how students perceive math. When parents avoid certain concepts or teachers feel stressed when approaching the subject, math becomes a lot more intimidating.
You can use this knowledge to your advantage. In the same way that math anxiety is contagious, so is math enthusiasm. If you are genuinely excited to discuss a concept or start an activity, your students will be too. This is particularly useful for scaffolded activities. If your students catch your enthusiasm about fractions, they will be equally excited about the next idea you introduce.
It’s time to rethink math. Here are a few activities you can build into your lesson plans to make them more engaging. These are low-budget lessons that require minimal resources. See how these math activities change your classroom experience.
1. Start Each Lesson With Similarities and Differences
Math concepts are intimidating because each new lesson comes with new signs, numbers, rules, and concepts. It’s easy for kids to fall behind in math if they miss learning about a key symbol (like a plus sign) that is used in more advanced concepts.
One way to scaffold your math activities is to start each lesson by reviewing the similarities and differences between the previous concept and the new one. This is a good way to review the past lesson and tie it to new ideas.
For example, what are the similarities between addition/subtraction and multiplication/division – assuming students already learned about addition but don’t know anything about multiplication?
- Both of these pairs come with one tool for making numbers bigger (addition and multiplication) and one tool for making numbers smaller (subtraction and division).
- The signs that make numbers bigger look like crosses or x’s.
- The signs that make numbers smaller have bars, but division is different because the bar comes with dots.
You might be surprised by the various features that your students pick up on before you even introduce a concept. These warm-up discussions can help students identify patterns so new ideas seem less intimidating.
2. Let Students Learn in Pairs
The concept of scaffolding means students don’t have to explore a new concept immediately on their own. They can experience new ideas with various support systems in place. As you develop your math activities, consider creating group work and partner-based projects where students can work together and solve problems.
A great lesson plan example for little learners is counting above 20, 50, and even 100. Students will need to identify numbers before they can start manipulating them with subtraction and other math concepts. You can scaffold this process in multiple ways:
- Set up a classwide counting circle where you go around the room and each student counts off a number.
- Create counting buddies where students alternate saying one number and the next until they reach a certain point. (Add silly voice challenges to make it more fun.)
- Let students challenge each other by writing numbers on whiteboards and asking their peers to write the next highest digit.
Instead of asking a student to count to 30 on their own, these activities help kids identify patterns. If the next highest number after 25 is 26, then this pattern is repeated for 35 and 36.
3. Use Visual and Kinesthetic Aids
Without creative lesson plans, math classes can fall flat. Numbers and signs can seem boring and stuck on paper without practical use. One of the best ways to scaffold learning in math is with hands-on activities.
Look around your classroom and grab literally anything that can be counted, halved, multiplied, or used in a lesson. That bag of beads in the closet? It’s perfect for teaching probability. The box of dried-out markers? It’s ideal for addition and subtraction.
Kinesthetic and visual tools make math come to life and apply experiential lessons to paper concepts. You can use carpet squares (and students sitting on them) to show how 2 + 3 = 5 but 2 x 3 = 6. You can use shaving cream to illustrate how a pie can be divided into halves, fourths, thirds, and other fractions.
These lessons highlight how math is a living activity, not just a mandatory common core concept.
4. Create Absurd Classroom Challenges
If you find that your students shut down at the very idea of new math concepts, consider building a lesson plan that answers a silly question using multiple math processes. As an example: how many elephants can you fit into the classroom? This is an essential problem if you come across some elephants and want to show them off in class. Through this question, students can:
- Use area and perimeter to understand how much space elephants take up.
- Divide the room in different ways to fit more elephants.
- Engage in 3D shapes to see if elephants can be stacked on top of each other.
One question can utilize several different math concepts – including new ideas and previous terms and tools your students already know. Your goal is to engage students in your math activities before they have time to get anxious about it.
5. Let Students Create Problems for Each Other
Instead of developing homework assignments and worksheets for your students, challenge them to create assignments for each other. This can be done as pair work, with one student writing a problem and switching papers with a peer to solve it. It can also be done on a full-class level.
This is a fun scaffolding activity because it allows students to be the creators, not just the problem solvers. Some kids might try to create easy problems (if you cut a pie in half, how many slices do you have) while other students might develop nearly-impossible concepts (solve 3,245 + 9,892).
Ask each student to solve their problems before they pass them on to their peers. If you use digital tools in your classroom, your students can submit their problems and correct answers to you online, creating a worksheet that everyone completes for homework. Your students can also help each other to solve the problems they created.
This scaffolding activity creates a sense of ownership in the work students do, which helps with engagement.
Present Different Math Activities Throughout the Year
It takes a lot of work for teachers to develop engaging lesson plans that keep students interested in math. However, these activities can help students avoid the dreaded math anxiety that a lot of kids seem to have. Regardless of how students approached math before entering your classroom – or will approach it in the future – you can make this subject fun and engaging for students. The foundational elements your students learn this year can support their math development in the grades to come.