Increase Participation In Your Math Block


When I ask my class about their favorite subject, few students choose math. Even though it’s one of my favorite subjects to teach, it can be difficult to increase participation in math for students who struggle.

Because math is challenging, many students are reluctant to participate and sometimes aren’t even motivated to put in the effort. However, it’s possible to engage students with a little planning!

I’m going to share some easy and effective ways you can fine-tune your math block to increase student participation in a meaningful way.

Create an Atmosphere of Perseverance

Mathematical Practice #1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

Some students tend to give up the moment a problem seems challenging. Others attempt to solve it but get frustrated when they get an incorrect answer. Or, they stop participating altogether.

We must teach our students not to be afraid of getting the wrong answer. Instead, we want them to analyze their mistakes, and learn from their errors in order to grow as mathematicians.

One way you can do this is by regularly modeling the “best” wrong answer. I often display (with student permission, of course) student work that has been solved incorrectly. As a class, we ask the question, “What does this tell us about the student’s understanding of math?”

Making mistakes is part of learning.
Making mistakes is part of learning.

First we look for things that are done correctly. Next, we examine the mistakes to determine if it was an error in process or just a miscalculation. After these conversations, reluctant learners will often chime in, recognizing the mistake as one they’ve made, and sharing how it could be fixed.

Soon, students see that making a mistake is the first step to learning, and are willing to take a risk by participating more often.

Encourage Student Discourse

During math instruction, my class is rarely quiet. Instead, I encourage students to participate regularly and purposefully in whole class and small group discussion. By providing simple sentence stems, you can give students an entry point to the conversation and foster deeper thinking as students engage in dialogue with their classmates.

Sentence Starters for Small Groups

  • When I look at the problem, I notice…
  • I’m confused about…
  • Another way you can get the same answer is by…
  • My strategy is similar to/different than (another’s student’s) strategy because…
  • I can prove my answer is correct by…
Provide opportunities for participation through student discussion.
The more students talk about math, the deeper their understanding will be.

As you continue to provide opportunities for discussion, students will feel comfortable participating, often more eagerly than before!

Make it Visual

Looking at numbers on a page often feels too abstract for students. When you provide a visual representation of a problem, students get hands-on practice that makes learning more concrete. I like to do this by drawing pictures and using manipulatives whenever possible, even in the older grades.

Whether you are teaching in-person or virtually, using visuals can instantly engage even your most reluctant learners. Math Learning Center offers a variety of math manipulative apps available free for students and educators.

I also like to provide my students with easy strategies for drawing their own visuals. For example, I teach my students how to use bar-modeling to make a pictorial representation of a complicated problem. Bar modeling can be applied to every operation and helps kids quickly see what kind of math needs to be done.

Students can use also graph paper to make a quick sketch of the problem. This works well for visualizing fractions and decimals.

Using visual models like graph paper help to increase student participation.

I want my students to have tools they can use with just a pencil and paper, because manipulatives aren’t always readily available. That way, when they face a challenging problem, they are more equipped to tackle it right away.

Check out this post for more information how to increase participation in math using interactive notebooks, perfect for visual and kinesthetic learners!

Use Collaborative Strategies

Students need to be independent thinkers, but with collaboration they can support one another and extend their thinking. Plus, we all know that most kids cheer the moment you announce they will be working with a partner!

Structure your time well to increase participation

  1. Pose a problem
  2. Allow students to reflect individually and make a written record of their ideas.
  3. Partners or groups meet together. Each member shares his or her thoughts, and as a group they decide on the best way to solve the problem.
  4. The group presents their solution to the class. (optional)
Increase participation by keeping groups small, with 2-3 members each.
I generally prefer small groups of 2-3 students each.

This can be done quickly, such as having two students stand back to back as they solve a problem on individual whiteboards, and then flip around to compare answers. Or use it with rigorous challenges, where students work for an entire math block on one multi-step problem.

If you are teaching virtually, consider using break-out rooms or collaborative Google slides to promote collective thinking. This will allow your students to build mathematical confidence together. All of my digital math notebooks are designed for use in Google.

I hope these strategies will help you increase student participation in your math instruction and allow your students to grow as mathematicians!

If you are looking for high-interest, interactive math resources, check out my digital math notebooks for 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade!


April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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