I was the type of student teachers want – hard working, teacher-pleasing, bright. Until one day I just quit doing my math homework. My teacher asked me why and I said, “Please just give me a different way to do it! Anything but another worksheet.” At the time, I had no idea how profound that was! I was just a good kid who liked math, but was bored beyond belief.
Too many of our students feel the same way in class. We know how important it is for students to practice math skills and work on problems in class, so we need to find intriguing, engaging, and energizing ways for them. Here are four of my favorites!
1. Build-A-Problem – Use with multistep problems.
Preparation: Find the problems (3-5 is optimum depending on the length of the problem and age of the students) on which you want your students to work. Write each step to solve the problems. The problem and each step will become a separate “card.” I use a word table, and type one step into each cell. Have a way to identify the problems from the step cards. Finally, print and cut out each “card” separating the problems from the steps. Place the problems together, and mix all the steps for all the problems together.
The Play: Students work with a partner or small group. Begin by placing one of the problem cards face up at the top of the desk. The students look through all of the “step cards” to find the first step to solve the problem and place it below the problem card. Then find the next step card, and the next, until the problem is solved. Turn up another problem card, and build all the steps to solve that problem. Continue until all problems are solved.
Variation: Play this as a card game! Separate the problem cards from the step cards. Deal 4 to 6 step cards to each student (no more than 3 or 4 students depending on the number of problems used) and place the remaining cards face down in a pile to be used as a draw pile. Turn up a problem card. The first student plays the first step for solving the problem if he or she has it in his or her hand. If not, the student draws a card. The next player takes a turn. This continues with students playing steps or drawing cards until the problem is solved. Then the problem and steps are set aside, and a new problem is begun. This continues until the first student is out of cards and is the winner.
Accountability: When students complete a problem, they should copy it onto their notes page. If the problems come from a worksheet, they can copy it onto the worksheet. Or, have students tape or glue it onto chart paper for class discussion later.
Differentiation Option: Vary the number of problems given to students in a bag. Most students can work with three or four problems mixed together, but that may be too confusing for some students and too easy for others. You can vary the specific problems based on the level of challenge as well. Another way to make the activity more challenging is to not provide every step and put some blank cards in their place. Students need to recognize that the step is missing, place a blank card for the step, and fill in the card with the correct step.
2. Back-to-Back Whiteboards
This simple technique is fun for students. A pair of students sit back-to-back, and work a problem given by the teacher. When both students are ready, they turn and compare their answers. If they agree, high five! If not, discuss their process to determine the correct answer.
3. Hands And Brains
I introduce this activity to students by explaining that our brains have no hands sticking out of them, and likewise our hands have no brain of their own. Our brain can only communicate to the hands, and our hands do only what the brain tells them. In pairs, one student is the brain and can only communicate! The other student must do or write exactly what the brain says. This can be used to complete practice problems, model with manipulatives, or just about anything you think! Have students switch roles every other problem.
4. Paired Worksheets
If you really want to use a worksheet (and many students like them!), design a paired worksheet with two columns of problems. Each corresponding problem in the columns will have the same answer, such as 3X8 and 6X4 or 6x–2=1 and 2x+1=2. Each partner works on one of the columns. After each problem is completed, students compare their answers to be sure they got a correct answer. They work their problems simultaneously, waiting to compare answers before moving to the next problem.
Practice does not have to be monotonous and boring for students. Simply think of ways to get those practice problems off the page!