NP Math teachers take aim at improving student engagement

NP Math teachers take aim at improving student engagement

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Finding the right answer to a problem has traditionally been the main objective in mathematics, however the prevalence of multiple choice questions on standardized tests has taught students “to circle and not explain” their answers, said Kirk Walters, principal investigator for the Better Math Teaching Network, an organization dedicated to improving student engagement in math.

A cohort of 14 middle and high school teachers from North Providence have volunteered to work with BMTN throughout the school year, meeting regularly at North Providence High School to examine their teaching practices and promote student engagement using data from RICAS, PSAT and SAT exams.

Today’s standardized tests reflect a shift in education away from rote learning, or memorization based on repetition. Examples of rote learning include memorizing multiple tables or formulas, cramming for a test or using mnemonic devices, methods that are strongly discouraged in education today.

During their meeting last week, researchers from BMTN tasked the group of teachers with assessing their students’ engagement levels using a “non-rote” problem, or a problem with multiple steps and facets, involving more than simple computation. These are the types of questions that tend to stump students during standardized testing, said NPHS Math Department Chairwoman Maria Branco.

Take this RICAS practice problem for 7th-graders as an example:

“Billy left home at 9 a.m. and rode his bicycle to the park at an average speed of 10 miles per hour, arriving at 9:30 a.m. How many miles from the park is Billy’s home? Show or explain how you got your answer.”

If you answered fives miles, you’d be technically correct, but not according to RICAS standards. If a question asks the student to show or explain his or her work, they must do so to receive full credit, even if their answer is right. If the answer is correct but the explanation doesn’t demonstrate understanding, they could still lose a point.

“The problem is that students can work through a math problem, but have difficulty justifying their solution process mathematically,” said Branco. Educators at both the middle and high school level agreed that using non-rote problems is taking time to “re-program” students’ minds.

BMTN researcher Melinda Griffin said students think writing happens down the hall in English class, and often find it difficult to justify their answer in words. “They need support to write mathematically,” she said. “Often, they’re able to give higher-quality verbal justifications for their answers than written ones.”

To address this challenge, the BMTN facilitators provided rubrics for North Providence teachers to “fine-tune” the level of student engagement using instructional routines. The rubrics encourage students to “deep-solve” and “deep-justify” their answers, helping to prepare them for non-rote questions on standardized tests.

Students aren’t docked points for spelling, but they are expected to respond logically and precisely using math language and concepts. If they do not make any attempt to solve or make sense of the problem, it’s considered “superficial” solving.

The BMTN facilitators also encouraged North Providence educators to experiment with changes that other teachers in the network have found success implementing. For example, high school math teacher Deborah Giammarco conducted a trial with her students by having them answer non-rote questions, then go back in and write why they chose that answer.

Another North Providence educator remarked that she was excited to try a new method of engagement in her own classroom by asking students to tell her what they understand instead of asking what they don’t. A third teacher said student engagement increased when she added a sentence-starter to help prompt their responses.

The group will continue to meet regularly with BMTN facilitators in order to discover and implement new methods of educating students, bouncing ideas off one another and learning from math educators across the country.