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Engaging Students by Inspiring Their Hearts and Minds

By Jennifer Ackerman posted 09-22-2023 08:20:34


As a math teacher, how often do you hear, “this is the last class I need to graduate” or “I just want to get through this class”? The growth of quiet quitting by employees is something that math instructors have experienced for years in their classes: students performing the minimum amount of work that they can to get through and pass the class. Students frequently attempt to memorize content that they’re required to know. They’ll memorize formulas and steps without any real understanding. They keep trying to memorize more and more until eventually, they reach a tipping point where they can’t keep up and it all comes crashing down. What if instructors could get students to explore ideas and engage with the math content in a way that moves beyond rote memorization and regurgitation? Engaging students’ hearts and minds can inspire creative thinking in the classroom and beyond. 


By working to develop students’ intrinsic motivation, teachers support the guiding principles of ownership and engagement, two of AMATYC’s four pillars of PROWESS. Developing students’ sense of ownership over their learning leads them to a higher level of engagement with mathematical ideas. Multiple sources talk about how external rewards can be useful for mundane or routine tasks, but they are not good for developing higher-order thinking (Grading for Equity, 25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation). In a 2019 interview with Larry Ferlazzo (Education Week Opinion Contributor), Joe Feldman emphasized this idea:


Finally, we want our grades to motivate students intrinsically. While traditional approaches to grading rely on the belief that students need the reward of points in a grade in order to be incentivized to do homework assignments or contribute in class, students are actually dependent on these external rewards because we’ve taught them to be. Research has been conclusive for decades: Intrinsic motivation is far more effective for learning, and extrinsic motivation undermines learning. Equitable grading builds intrinsic motivation, empowering students with self-regulation and ownership over their learning. For example, we can teach students that doing homework is important not because the teacher awards 10 points for completing it but because the homework is designed to help them learn—a means-end relationship that is borne out on the summative assessment. Although teachers can be skeptical that students can be motivated intrinsically, teachers have found that when they re-establish these means-ends relationships in learning through more equitable grading practices, students will do homework assignments without the promise of points.


A supplemental idea to not using a “carrot” is to simultaneously stop waving a “stick” and move away from using negative motivators. With students continually being under pressure, allowing them to take ownership, such as having late passes with no excuses or permission needed to redeem them, can produce positive results for their progress.


Another way to support developing student ownership and engagement is to remind students why they are here to learn. Asking a student, “What is your why?” helps them focus on their goals and how mathematics is a piece of the puzzle that can help lead to their success. 


By moving students beyond rote memorization and not having repetitive tasks that make math homework feel like drudgery, teachers can excite students about mathematics in the classroom and in the world around them. Mathematics is amazing and beautiful - what do you do to share your love and passion for math with your students?

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It doesn’t fit with this article, but my favorite quote from his book (and there are many thought-provoking quotes), is “We preach the gospel of learning but we make students genuflect to the altar of points” 


Conclusion:  Engaging students’ hearts and minds can inspire creative thinking in the classroom and beyond.