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Students Deserve an Answer When They Ask, “When Will I Ever Use This?” In Math Class

By Margaret A. Bowman, Ph.D.

This article was originally published at mdreducation.com, here.

Every math teacher has likely heard it before: “When am I ever going to use this?”

While some students quickly pick up anything mathematical, others mumble through class about how they don’t like math, they aren’t good at math, math just isn’t “their thing”, and they’re never going to use it in real life. Students who think this way often have had a bad experience with math and struggle to connect what they learn in school to their own lives, both current and future. Research shows, though, that motivation is critical to short- and long-term mathematical performance (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). Without intervention, these students’ motivation for learning math is only going to get worse.

Students deserve an opportunity to see themselves as capable and successful in math, and teachers need tools to give them that opportunity. Thankfully, the research can point us toward a solution: Technology has been shown time and time again to increase students’ motivation to learn and improve their performance on mathematical tasks (for example, Chao et al., 2016; Star et al., 2014). One such piece of technology is a digital mathematics curriculum — a cohesive collection of mathematical content, tools, materials, activities, and assessments delivered using a singular learning platform.

In the past few years, I’ve observed many students, including my own children, using a digital curriculum. To be sure, some students are provided a collection of digital resources from various sources, such as videos, activities, lesson ideas, extra math practice, worksheets, and assessments, and that can work well. The benefit of a cohesive digital curriculum is its connectedness. For example, the program that I helped to create, McGraw Hill’s Reveal Math, flows from one lesson to the next, from the opening video to the exploration, to the interactive exercises, to the real-world application tasks, to the closing discussion.

As a researcher and curriculum developer, I wanted to know how this integrated approach to instruction influenced students’ motivation. In theory, when the instructional pieces are inter-connected and students don’t have to learn how to use and navigate different pieces from different platforms, their learning and motivation should improve even more.

To test this theory, I recently conducted a study with sixth-grade math students, as part of my dissertation research, to find specific ways that digital curriculum could improve their motivation. My focus was on how the digital math curriculum can change students’ notion that math isn’t useful in real life and on helping them see for themselves that they can be successful. I wanted to give them good mathematical experiences to combat some of those negative memories. From this research, I found that a cohesive curriculum does, in fact, impact motivation. Additionally, I identified three key features of a cohesive curriculum that significantly influenced students’ beliefs about the usefulness of math and their expectations of success, and ultimately lead to better performance: authenticity, interactivity, and ease of use. These findings are currently in the peer-review process for publication; however, the trends I identified are notable, and I’m excited to see how further research will build on my observations and conclusions.

Authenticity is a link between two worlds. It’s about helping students see the relevance of math. Digital curriculum can achieve authenticity in several ways. For example, weaving themes throughout the lessons and units taps into students’ interests as well as current social and environmental issues. The digital curriculum can also include interconnected videos, exploratory activities, and mathematical tasks with relatable, realistic contexts. This comes with a warning, however. Not all “realistic” situations are realistic to all students. When the curriculum fails to make the connection between the mathematical situation and the real-life context, it can be a barrier to students’ learning. Understanding and connecting with many cultural backgrounds and perspectives can make the curriculum more authentic and relevant to more students, while simultaneously introducing new experiences to students. When lessons specifically target authenticity in this way, they are more fun and memorable for students, leading to a greater belief in the usefulness of math (Attard, 2014).

Interactivity refers to two intentional exchanges with the student: physical interaction with the technology, and cognitive interaction with the mathematics. A digital curriculum that includes interactive tools to solve mathematical problems creates avenues for deeper engagement with and understanding of mathematics. These tools can provide immediate and purposeful feedback, which allows students to learn from their own interactions and responses (Attard & Holmes, 2020). If the technology supports students’ mathematical learning in ways that students can feel more confident, then the interactions with the digital curriculum may help students see the usefulness of mathematics while also improving their expectations of success.

The ease of use can also be twofold: the ease of using the digital curriculum, and the ease of using, engaging with, and learning mathematics. When intentionally designed to be easy to use through easy navigation, for example, the curriculum may affect utility value and expectations of success by making mathematics more accessible (Ayub et al., 2008). Ease of use can also indirectly affect performance by reducing cognitive load so that students can focus on their mathematical learning, increasing their expectations that they can be successful. When extraneous knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the program are reduced, students are freer to focus on the mathematical topic being presented to them.

Ultimately, my theory was supported: Students are motivated in math when the curriculum is cohesive, and when they have carefully designed interactions with technology. Additionally, those three pillars — authenticity, interactivity, and ease of use — are the specific curriculum components that make the difference for learners.

Of course, the main intent of the mathematics curriculum is to improve students’ knowledge and understanding of mathematics. However, the curriculum also has a role in answering the age-old question: “When will I ever use this?” Success in math is inextricably linked to motivation in math and students’ relationship to math knowledge and skills. As writers, builders, and developers of digital curricula, it is critical that we intentionally and explicitly target students’ beliefs about the usefulness of mathematics and their expectations that they can be successful in mathematics. For designers who strive to demonstrate the relevance of mathematics and increase students’ confidence in their own abilities, providing authentic scenarios and mathematical tasks in an easy-to-use digital environment is imperative.

When we as curriculum designers seek to improve motivation and instill confidence, students’ mathematical performance and achievement-related choices will benefit in both the short- and long term.

Look for more work from Margaret in student motivation and curriculum design coming soon. To read Margaret’s work on teacher professional development and technology, see these publications:

Hawk, N.A., Bowman, M.A., & Xie, K. (2021). Theory-Based Intervention Framework to Improve Mathematics Teachers’ Motivation to Engage in Online Professional Development. In: Hollebrands K., Anderson R., Oliver K. (eds) Online Learning in Mathematics Education. Research in Mathematics Education. (pp. 207–225). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-80230-1_11

Hawk, N.A., Vongkulluksn, V.W., Xie, K., & Bowman, M.A. (2021). Individual and contextual factors’ influence on technology use for cognitive tasks across content areas. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 37(4), 1077–1090. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcal.12547.

Bowman, M.A., Vongkulluksn, V.W., Jiang, Z., & Xie, K. (2020). Teachers’ exposure to professional development and the quality of their instructional technology use: The mediating role of teachers’ value and ability beliefs. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2020.1830895.

Vongkulluksn, V.W., Xie, K., & Bowman, M.A. (2018). The role of value on teachers’ internalization of external barriers and externalization of personal beliefs for classroom technology integration. Computers & Education, 118, 70–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2017.11.009.

For more on K-12 math instruction, visit Inspired Ideas in Math Education.

Margaret Bowman, Ph.D. is an Academic Designer in the Mathematics Department at McGraw Hill. Margaret earned her Bachelor of Science in Education from Ashland University with a teaching license in Middle Grades Education, her Master of Education from Tiffin University, and her Doctorate from The Ohio State University. She was a middle school Math and Language Arts teacher for six years before joining the middle school team at McGraw Hill in 2012, writing and designing print and digital curriculum.

Margaret is also a Research Associate in the Research Laboratory for Digital Learning at The Ohio State University. Her past research and journal publications have focused on teachers’ value for using technology in the classroom and technology’s impact on student learning. Her current research examines how students’ use of technology can improve the value they have for mathematics and their expectations that they can succeed.

References

Attard, C. (2014). ‘I don’t like it, I don’t love it, but I do it and I don’t mind’: Introducing a framework for engagement with mathematics. Curriculum Perspectives, 34(3), 1–14.

Attard, C. & Holmes, K. (2020). “It gives you that sense of hope”: An exploration of technology use to mediate student engagement with mathematics. Heliyon, 6(1), 02945. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e02945.

Ayub, A.F.M., Tarmizi, R.A., Bakar, K.A., & Yunus, A.S.M. (2008). A comparison of Malaysian secondary students perceived ease of use and usefulness of dynamic mathematical software. International Journal of Education and Information Technologies, 3(2), 194–201.

Chao, T., Chen, J., Star, J. R., & Dede, C. (2016). Using digital resources for motivation and engagement in learning mathematics: Reflections from teachers and students. Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education, 2(3), 253–277.

Eccles J.S., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 109–132.

Star, J.R., Chen, J.A., Taylor, M.W., Durkin, K., Dede, C., & Chao, T. (2014). Studying technology-based strategies for enhancing motivation in mathematics. International Journal of STEM Education, 1(7).

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