Friday / July 19

3 Ways to Tap Student Interest in Math Class

I think it’s intuitive for teacher. We all know this: We are supposed to connect our content to students’ interests. I was a high school math teacher. Niggling in the back of my mind was how to really hook students into learning the content I was teaching with what they were interested in. It regularly stumped me. Truth is, I never had a student come to class and ask me if today was slope day. You know… “Dr. Smith! Is today the day we learn slope? ‘Cause I’ve been waiting and waiting and I am so excited to learn the slope formula…” Never happened.

So just how do we connect math content with students’ interests? I want to suggest three general methods (there are more) with a few examples at different grade levels (Smith b&c, 2017).

  1. Connect students’ hobbies and passions to concepts rather than skills.

Sometimes thinking of a hobby that relates to a specific skill can trip us up, but thinking about bigger concepts in which the skill embeds can link to hobbies. For example:

  • Addition and subtraction, which is really about joining and separating in elementary grades, naturally links to collecting things, which most elementary students do.
  • Unit rates in middle school naturally connect with bargain shopping… and what middle school student doesn’t want to buy something?
  • Polyhedra in high school Geometry can be studied through art and architecture – especially sculptors, famous skylines, and monuments.

These connections can be used to show the usefulness of the skills to be taught, or be the basis for word problems (make them personal and chatty when writing rather than text book-like) or a larger PBL or other assessment project. There was a research study that showed that changing the context of a word problem to something students were interested in (rather than the typical word problems often used), such as shopping, computers, music or cell phones resulted in students learning better, faster, and remembering it four units later! The numbers were not changed from the original problem, only the context. (Walkington, et. al, 2014).

These connections can be used to introduce a unit as a teaser, as context problems to intrigue students throughout a unit, or as a formative or summative assessment.

  1. Use novelty for a change of pace.

Brain research has let us know that we can hook students into content through connections (see point 1), appropriate challenge, and novelty (Sousa, 2015). Perhaps one of the greatest detriments in interesting students with mathematics is the sheer predictability of what will happen in class. Sometimes the thought of changing how we run class can be intimidating or overwhelming. What if it doesn’t work or go well? What if I can’t manage the class? Truthfully, it might not be perfect and it will definitely be messy. It’s still worth it!

Doing something out of the ordinary might be as simple as changing the order of your class routine. For example, in a mathematics workshop (and most constructivist math lessons) students begin with exploring a hands-on task that they have not yet been taught in order to start forming their own connections. These explorations could be:

  • Rolling dice with a partner to make two-digit numbers, and then putting them in ascending order prior to formalizing the roll of place value in primary grades. Numbers can be ordered based on a hundreds chart if students can’t count that high.
  • Sorting shapes and creating categories for their groupings prior to learning names, characteristics and the hierarchy of polygons for intermediate students.
  • Using two-color counters in various arrangements to wipe out “zero pairs” in order for middle school students to discover the patterns for adding integers. This would be done rather than teaching the “rules” for adding integers. Students might need to be told in advance what is a zero pair.
  • Use a Concept Attainment model (These are functions vs. These are not functions) with high school students to have them determine what is and is not a function. Examples (both of and of not) would include graphs, tables, and equations to start, and may extend into context descriptions.

Other ideas for novelty include dice rolling to generate problems, bringing in a large deck of cards to draw for partners or groups or even for typical probability problems – the size (very large or very small) of items adds novelty. Use video. The list is endless of ways to bring in a fresh approach and just do something a little different.

  1. Offer choice.

Offering choice to students in how they will learn, practice, or demonstrate learning is by far the most common way we tap the interest of our students. In fact, research suggests that offering choice a minimum of 35% of the time in class will increase students’ intrinsic motivation (Jensen, 1998). When designing choices for students, bear these principles in mind (Smith a, 2017):

  • Be sure that every choice stays true to the learning goal of the lesson. It is possible to design a variety of activities that accomplish different goals without even realizing that has happened.
  • Be sure that everyone has to address the essential understanding and conceptual basis of the topic regardless of the specific task.
  • Take extra care that each option has the same rigor and effort requirements. If students choose a task because it appears easier than others, it should be because the structure of the task fits a comfortable way for them to learn rather than it actually being easier.
  • Be aware of how long each option should take students to complete. There is nothing worse than having one task completed in much less time than other tasks!

Organizing choice for students can be as simple as a choice board (list the options and students sign up) or more complex such as a Think Tac Toe. The following are examples from elementary and secondary classrooms.

Elementary (Smith b, 2017):

Directions: Chose one task from each row to complete. You do not have to choose tasks to get three in a row. Choose tasks you feel you will best be able to complete.
Practice multiplication and division facts using flash cards with a partner.


Complete a multiplication and division practice sheet. Review your math facts using a multiplication table. Identify 6 facts on which you want to concentrate.


Create a page of fact families for 7, 8 and 9 (or three other numbers you want to practice).


Make a poster of how multiplication and division are related. Make a set of multiplication and division triangle manipulatives.
Make a poster of the different meanings of multiplication and division.




Write 3 different application problems for multiplication or division that show the meanings of multiplication and division. Model multiplication and division facts showing the meanings of multiplication and division. For example, an area model for 3X7 or a partition for 18 ÷ 9.


Secondary (Smith c, 2017):

  • Create a word problem that requires proportional reasoning.  Solve the problem and explain why it requires proportional reasoning.
  • Find a word problem from the text that requires proportional reasoning.  Solve the problem and explain why it was proportional.
  • Think of a way that you use proportional reasoning in your life.  Describe the situation, explain why it is proportional and how you use it.


  • Create a story about a proportion in the world.  You can write it, act it, video tape it, or another story form.
  • How do you recognize a proportional situation?  Find a way to think about and explain proportionality?
  • Make a list of all the proportional situations in the world today.
  • Create a pict-o-gram, poem or anagram of how to solve proportional problems
  • Write a list of steps for solving any proportional problem.
  • Write a list of questions to ask yourself, from encountering a problem that may be proportional through solving it.
Directions: Choose one option in each row to complete.  Check the box of the choice you make, and turn this page in with your finished selections.



I am a game player, so I enjoyed designing games for my students to practice skills. I made card games, and puzzles, and… you name it to be creative and fun in my math classroom. Guess what! There are students who want to do a worksheet. So, when designing options, don’t forget the traditional approach as well. Word of warning though: some students opt for the worksheet because it requires less thought and effort than something different. Don’t let students become lazy learners in the name of choice.

I hope you see that tapping into our students’ interests isn’t always about connecting our specific lesson to their hobbies. There are many ways to interest students with our content! Tapping into students’ interest is however, always about increasing energy, excitement, and motivation in the classroom.



Jensen, E. (1998).  Teaching with the brain in mind.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Smith, N.N. (2017) A mind for mathematics: Meaningful teaching and learning in elementary classrooms.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Smith, N.N. (2017) Every math learner: A doable approach to teaching with learning differences in mind, K-5.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Smith, N.N. (2017) Every math learner: A doable approach to teaching with learning differences in mind, 6-12.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sousa, D. A. (2015). How the brain learns mathematics, 2nd edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Walkington, C, Milan, S., & Howell, E. (2014). Personalized learning in algebra.The Mathematics Teacher, 108, (4), 272-279.

Written by

Nanci Smith, founder of Effective Classrooms Educational Consulting (E2C2), is currently a full-time consultant in the areas of differentiated instruction, curriculum, Common Core State Standards, and mathematics. Also ASCD faculty in the differentiated instruction cadre, and a Solution Tree consultant and author on two books in press, Nanci has provided professional development in small, large, urban, rural, and suburban districts in 47 states, as well as the Netherlands, Singapore, and Japan. She has presented at conferences and institutes in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and has helped develop high-quality curriculum in the Philippines. Smith is the math consultant and author of the User’s Guide for ASCD’s Meaningful Math: Leading Students Toward Understanding and Application DVD series and has developed a CD/DVD-based professional development series for middle school math teachers. Her classroom was featured in ASCD’s video series At Work in the Differentiated Classroom. She authored a chapter in the ASCD book Differentiation in Practice, Grades 5 – 9, as well as assorted lessons in other ASCD books on differentiation. Nanci is the author of Every Math Learner, Grades K-5 and Every Math Learner, Grades 6-12, which publish in spring of 2016.

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