# The Most Effective Way to Motivate Students to Learn Math

*... is to not overwhelm them. In my experience, students naturally enjoy math when it doesn't feel overwhelmingly difficult to learn.*

What’s the most effective way to motivate students to learn math?

Of course, there’s a number of effective motivational techniques that can be combined – you’re not limited to just one.

However, if I had to pick one out as the biggest needle-mover on student motivation, it would be this:

**Don’t overwhelm them.**

In my experience, students naturally enjoy math when it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly difficult to learn.

And no matter how many funny jokes you crack, how many cool applications of math you show off, how much social interaction takes place in class, how excited you get students about math-heavy careers…

None of that matters if the material feels overwhelmingly difficult to learn.

How do you avoid overwhelming a student without lowering the bar for success?

Here are 3 tips to help support a student in clearing the bar at full height:

**Tip #1.** Start at a point where they’re solid on their foundations – this may mean starting at the bottom of some knowledge holes.

**Tip #2.** Provide enough review to keep them solid on those foundations as well as any new material they learn. (You can’t build on foundations that are crumbling away!)

**Tip #3.** Present new material that is broken up into bite-size pieces with a high degree of guidance and scaffolding – in particular, with a series of worked examples, each worked example followed by active problem-solving on problems of that type.

The example & problems should start out covering the simplest possible case, and then gradually ramp up in difficulty and generality as the student successfully solves problems in the simpler cases.

Every single problem should include feedback – whether the student solved it correctly, and if not, what should they do differently to succeed on the next attempt.

**Now, how do you put these into practice?**

I think tip #2 is the easiest to start with:

*2. Provide enough review to keep them solid on those foundations as well as any new material they learn. (You can’t build on foundations that are crumbling away!)*

To implement this in the classroom, a teacher can

- give frequent quizzes that include a variety of review problems, and
- spiral/interleave through the curriculum instead of teaching one unit at a time.

(I’ve written a bit about spiraling and interleaving here: *Spaced Repetition vs Spiraling* and *Cognitive Science of Learning: Interleaving*.)

**Next, tip #1:**

*1. Start at a point where they’re solid on their foundations – this may mean starting at the bottom of some knowledge holes.*

This tip is basically suggesting mastery learning, where students must demonstrate proficiency on prerequisite topics before moving on to more advanced topics.

You might find it interesting to read about the history of mastery learning in classrooms –

there are methods by which a single teacher can loosely approximate mastery learning, such as Bloom’s Learning For Mastery (LFM) strategy and Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI),

but unfortunately, despite producing well-documented learning gains in classrooms, even loose approximations of mastery learning were not widely adopted as they faced opposition for deviating from traditional convention and requiring more effort from teachers and administrators.

I wrote a bit about this here: *A Brief History of Mastery Learning*.

**Lastly, tip #3:**

*3. Present new material that is broken up into bite-size pieces with a high degree of guidance and scaffolding – in particular, with a series of worked examples, each worked example followed by active problem-solving on problems of that type.*

*The example & problems should start out covering the simplest possible case, and then gradually ramp up in difficulty and generality as the student successfully solves problems in the simpler cases.*

*Every single problem should include feedback – whether the student solved it correctly, and if not, what should they do differently to succeed on the next attempt.*

For some more info about this tip, along with a concrete example, check out *Chapter 13. Minimizing Cognitive Load* in *The Math Academy Way*.

(The concrete example is covered in the section on “Micro-Scaffolding” in that chapter.)