Classroom Environment and Student Motivation to Learn Mathematics

...to support strong cognitive outcomes the learning activity needs not only to trigger interest it must be able to maintain interest sufficient to support the persistence and effort required for skill acquisition and extension of knowledge. This is an especially taxing problem for teachers of young adolescents in their middle years of secondary schooling (Ainley, 2004)

Mathematics classrooms do not always seem like inviting places to many young adolescents. The middle school years, in particular, are a time when students' interest and engagement in mathematics (as well as in science) have been found to decline.

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For more about this phenomenon, read this synthesis of prior research by Jennifer Stepanek, "Why is Classroom Environment So Important?"

candySo what does a mathematics classroom look like in which students feel interested and motivated to learn? Over a decade of studies into the learning structures of classrooms and students' actions and attitudes, researchers in educational psychology have found that mathematics classrooms in which students participate actively and are supported in developing higher-level knowledge are correlated with positive cognitive and motivational outcomes. In such classrooms, there is an emphasis on "learning, understanding, and intellectual development" (Turner et al., p. 88).

These classrooms deemphasize students' relative ranking to one another and instead, focus students' attention on active involvement--both individually and collaboratively--in making sense of mathematics. In such settings, students are more likely to take academic risks and feel safe in doing so, qualities that will serve them well in school and in their life beyond school. (Garfield posters don't hurt, either.)

Such recommendations go against a tradition of teaching mathematics as a series of steps and procedures, modeled by teachers and mimicked by students. As Stepanek (2000) writes in another chapter of her report,

A classroom community in which students are active members is important not only because of positive student outcomes. It also plays a part in modeling the nature of inquiry and problem solving-the processes of doing mathematics and science. Personal involvement and learning are enhanced with opportunities to figure things out, to interpret the results of investigations, to generate hypotheses, and to create knowledge and meaning. Active participation is a necessity rather than an option or an enhancement.

Reading Reflection:

  • Do you agree or disagree with the author's point of view? Why or why not?
  • In what ways might you change your current practices to make changes to your work with students?