Expert Viewpoint

Three Strategies for Growing Student Engagement in Math Using Ed Tech Tools

For the last 25 years, my professional life has been devoted to teaching math. I’ve taught math to students in grades 6–8 as well as high school geometry, and I have loved every moment of it. For the last five years, I have served as a math interventionist in South Carolina’s Greenville County Schools and as a full-time virtual teacher.

In my role as a math interventionist, I have three goals for my students. First, I want them to learn that math is everywhere. Also, I want them to develop mathematical literacy by exploring math concepts and then explaining their thoughts. Finally, I want them to develop the critical thinking skills that come from problem-solving.

However, there are some barriers to fulfilling these goals. The first major barrier is the fact that, often, the students I am working with come to class with the firm mindset that they are not “math people.” The second major barrier is that as a virtual educator, I am teaching students in an atmosphere that I often have little control over. My students are at home, in their own surroundings, with their TVs, Xboxes, pets, and siblings to distract them all the time.

To overcome these two major barriers, I’ve turned to educational technologies. The students I am working with are tech-savvy and comfortable with media and digital content, so it is natural that I use ed tech as a lever with which to engage them in math.

Following are some of the ways I use technology to heighten student interest in math.

Making Math Real

Since the beginning of time, students have asked teachers, “When will I ever use this stuff?”

So, I begin every lesson with a short video that illustrates everyday math in action. There are many different places to find this content, but my favorite is Discovery Education’s K-12 platform. This resource — which is being provided to educators in my state at no cost courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Education — offers standards-aligned content from sources I trust that I can quickly integrate into lessons.

For example, the majority of my boys are interested in professional sports, so I looked for content on that topic and found that Discovery Education had a virtual field trip exploring careers in the sports arena (other than being a professional athlete). I recently used a segment of that virtual field trip to kick off a unit on statistics, and I can report that it really heightened my students' interest in the topic.

Make Easy-to-Use Tools Available

According to one recent study, people touch their smartphones approximately 2,600 times a day. While smartphones are powerful tools, they can also be a big distraction, especially to virtual students. I found that I need to take that distraction off my students’ plate and put all the tools my students need right in front of them. So I began integrating Desmos into instruction. Desmos offers free teaching and learning tools like powerful scientific and graphing calculators, a geometry tool, and for teachers, an activity builder. Teachers can build interactive activities for students that include graphing, matching, multiple choice, fill in the blank, ordered lists, or checkboxes. Users can graph points, shapes, measure angles and line segments, create transformations, and find midpoints. The graphing calculator allows students to explore equations and points.

In addition to these features, activities on Desmos ask students to explain their thinking. Their thoughts can be shared with the whole class either anonymously or with their name. This sharing ability leads to great discussions. It not only requires students to voice their thoughts, it also allows them to see different perspectives on one problem. Giving my students the confidence to explain their thoughts and let everyone see and discuss them is a big step on the path to mathematical literacy. Plus, the fact that this resource is an all-in-one solution keeps my students focused.

Gamify Equations

Now, this might be a little in the weeds for some, but the technology of math notation hasn’t changed in 400 years. The easiest way to write and solve an equation is still by hand, on paper. In the virtual environment, that often leads to a disconnect. However, the team at Graspable Math has evolved math notation in a new and fun direction.

With this program, students are free to manipulate an equation much like one would manipulate puzzle pieces. Students are given the opportunity to move pieces of an equation around and explore different methods of solving problems, making math more of a fun brain teaser that helps to build their critical thinking skills. In addition, Graspable Math immediately gives students feedback when solving equations and redirects them when they attempt an “illegal” move. The ability to make algebraic equations more fun has been a game-changer in my classroom.

These strategies meet my specific goals of helping students understand that math is everywhere, grow mathematical literacy, and develop critical thinking skills. And they are applicable in any math classroom — ultimately, each of these strategies helps students build their confidence in math. If students can feel more confident in problem-solving, then success in mathematics, and in life, will follow.

About the Author

A middle school math teacher for 24 years, Emily Strickland is an educator for Greenville K-8 Virtual School in Greenville, South Carolina, as the Middle Level Math Interventionist. She has served in many educational leadership roles throughout her career as well as presented math concepts and social-emotional learning strategies at regional and national conferences. Strickland holds a Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from University of South Carolina-Aiken, a Master's in Educational Technology from University of Phoenix Online, a Master's in Media Specialist from Jacksonville State University, and an Education Specialist-Administration degree from Clemson University.