Students who are struggling with math have a difficult path in front of them. They must relearn many partially and/or incorrectly learned procedures. Frequently, these students must deal with anxiety and strong feelings of stupidity. To make matters worse, most of their peers are still sprinting along, leaving our struggling learners with an increasing gap. Relearning is crucial, but how do we motivate kids to tackle this process?
Some kids are more likely to willingly participate in this process than others. Younger kids may not even understand the nature of their gap or their missing skills. Younger kids have less to relearn. Some have not developed crippling anxiety. A few of these kids may be “laid back” and relatively unconcerned about their performance. (I have only taught two “relaxed” students like this in over 40 years.)
For the rest of the struggling math learners, we must change the playing field through motivation and success. By the time these struggling students are in fourth and fifth grade, their primary goal is to avoid math in any way possible. “One and done” has become their motto. This means that external motivation is required (like the motivation that keeps many adults in their unhappy work situations). The reward system must be robust. Teachers need to involve parents in the process, perhaps for the actual rewards, depending upon student interests and options available.
I think it’s important to pair discussions/role-playing with any form of motivation. For this purpose, I create rubrics that prepare kids for new expectations and also allow kids to accurately evaluate their performance in math lessons. They are not evaluating their math achievement but how well they handle the frustrations of math intervention. Videotaping may supplement the use of rubrics. You are not only changing math skills; you are shaping attitudes and effort.
The following rubric is designed for a specific student. He is extremely discouraged, feels stupid, and has significant attention problems. There’s a bit of overlap between the categories by name, but the specifics allow this student to bomb in one area but still score points. As we work together, I am certain to adjust the rubric. The first question I face is where to set the bar (that is, how many stars equal what level or type of reward?). It’s important for my student to achieve initial success with this system, so the bar will start low. As he moves forward, I’ll raise the bar.
I mentioned above that motivation and success are key in helping students. As students improve their math performance, anxiety lessens. In future posts, I’ll share some tips for maximizing success.