How to help students love math and pass it?

By Murray Bourne, 17 Jan 2009

One of my readers from Lesotho wrote recently:

I am a new maths teacher in Lesotho:

  1. How can I teach the subject to help the learners pass and love it?
  2. How do I link the topics to have smooth connected lessons that tend to ease the learning of the subject?

Remember that we are doing O-Level education in Lesotho.

These are great questions and should be asked by all math teachers — not just beginning ones.

I didn't know much about Lesotho so a quick search told me that it is a landlocked country of around 2 million people. It is completely surrounded by South Africa and is the only country in the world whose landmass is entirely above 1,000 m elevation.


Lesotho's economy depends on sales of water to South Africa, diamonds and clothing. It even has a plant making Levis. I also learned that it is pronounced "le-su-tu".

Back to the letter. This was my reply:

Hello Qatsa

Welcome to IntMath. Your mail inspired me to find out more about your country. Do you live in Maseru?

To your questions.

I could write a book on the first question, "how can I teach the subject to help the learners pass and love it?"! But here's some quick ideas to think about:

  1. How much do you love it? Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm and you are a role model for your students.
  2. The relationship with the students is important. If the students feel that the teacher cares more about the algebra than them, they will be less motivated. You need to be warm, yet professionally distant.
  3. What is the meaning of the math that you are doing? That is, if it is only for an exam, it is forgotten very quickly. But if the students can see math as a tool for solving problems, then they will be more positive about it. You may wish to consider these 20 Global Problems as a starting point for your lessons. I know many of them are relevant to Lesotho:
  4. People learn differently and enjoy different things. Some are visual learners and don't like to read much text. Some are more verbal and need to hear it and read it before they understand it. When I first started teaching math, I taught it in the way that I learned it and understood it. But not all my students saw it the same way. I now try to present the same idea in several different ways so that I cater for different learning styles. See: Learning Styles

    One of my aims in Interactive Mathematics is to explain things in words, and in algebra and using diagrams where I can. I also relate the concepts to art and music where appropriate, and provide links back to the important background knowledge.

  5. Make it practical. Many of your students will find it difficult to abstract concepts in algebra. Make it concrete wherever possible. Hands-on is always good.
  6. For many students, math is like a foreign language. It has new vocabulary, new syntax, new symbols and new grammar. A good example is function notation. f(x) = 3x + 4 really throws a lot of students. You need to re-visit the concept over and over in different ways to make sure all have got it. Before we can use a new language, we need to learn the vocabulary, symbols and grammar.
  7. How to ensure that they pass? You can never guarantee that outcome, but you need to help them with the skills to achieve it. Most math teachers just say "study for your test tomorrow", but many students don’t know how to actually do that. We certainly need to teach them math study skills.

For the second question, "How do I link the topics to have smooth connected lessons that tend to ease the learning of the subject?", consider:

  1. Most adult math teachers forget what it is like to struggle with some new concept in math. Often the struggle is because the student cannot remember the key concepts from last semester, or maybe last year. Always revise what they need "just in time" so that they can make the connections easier.
  2. Don't go in and say "you remember we did **** yesterday". No - give them an activity which triggers them to remember the key thing that you want them to use today.

I hope that helps, Qatsa.

Math teachers: Any "gems" you’d like to add?

Math students: Do you have any comments on my suggestions? Like to add any more?

See the 4 Comments below.

4 Comments on “How to help students love math and pass it?”

  1. Mick Malkemus says:

    Dear Qatsa,

    I'll offer some insight. In school, I was always bored with math instruction because the ideas were so easy for me that I had to wait for everyone to catch up, or.... I would start to think deeply about a concept the instructor was talking about, and by the time I came 'back to class', two or three other concepts were already covered, and I was lost.

    Suggestion: introduce your students to Salmon Kahn. He's produced a lot of excellent videos that students can follow at their own pace. I find it the single most valuable way to enjoy math, at my own pace.

  2. joclyn says:

    if you want to be good in math you have to love and like it because if you love what are you learning everything follows you can easily be good in this subject

  3. dayne says:

    what if you are in an exams and you're a slow math solutionist because of thinking what should you do?

  4. Murray says:

    @Dayne: There's always an argument for not having a time limit on exams. However, in our busy world, there are time pressures on just about everything.

    It's probably a case of practising as much as you can before each exam, so that you recognize the question type quicker, and have a better idea of the solution steps needed.

    Good luck with it!

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