Effective maths teachers are using technology to aid student engagement and promote new learning methods, according to new research from Western Sydney University.
Many Australian schools are reporting stagnation in mathematics results and decreasing enrolments in advanced level mathematics courses, despite the increasing importance of a mathematically capable workforce.
But Associate Professor Catherine Attard and Professor Kathryn Holmes of Western Sydney University have found that the innovative use of technology to create more engaging and relevant experiences for maths students may help to reverse this trend.
In their article, “It gives you that sense of hope’: An exploration of technology use to mediate student engagement with mathematics”, the researchers draw on case studies of 10 teachers who were recognised by their peers as exemplary users of technology, aiming to identify how they have taken advantage of new technologies in their classrooms.
The article shows teachers making use of technology such as learning management software to keep track of students’ progress and set personalised tasks, collaborative classroom apps that allow students to work together and share their work with the group, and even educational video games, that demonstrate mathematical concepts in an engaging way.
Student focus groups indicated that pupils found these types of approaches beneficial, with many students who have struggled with maths improving their results.
One student, whose classroom was featured in the study, said of their teacher’s approach, “I never really liked maths, growing up I always found it really hard and I could never think in that way. But in the past year I have been able to understand it a bit more just through this way of teaching.”
The researchers examine the practices of teachers through the lens of the “Framework for engagement with mathematics” or “FEM”, a tool which identifies the key elements of a successful and engaging mathematics classroom.
These elements include challenging tasks, relevance of the mathematical concepts to the students’ daily lives, and letting students choose how they complete work.
An example of a task that illustrates the FEM’s requirements is the “driverless car” lesson employed by a teacher from the study. This lesson tasks students to create a map of a route they know from their daily lives, and program a small robotic ball called “Sphero” to travel that route.
Further examples of the types of technological aids used by teachers include educational video games that frame mathematics problems and concepts in a colourful way based on storytelling, reminiscent of many popular mainstream video games.
The teachers in the study were careful to only use technology where it was beneficial to learning, appropriate and relevant to engaging students with specific math concepts.
The researchers recommend that teachers should look to use a range of technological tools in their classrooms, as it will enable new ways of learning and engaging with mathematical concepts not provided by more traditional approaches.
“Unlike traditional textbooks, mobile devices provide opportunities for new types of teaching and learning interactions, they provide new ways of capturing student work samples, providing instruction and feedback, and fostering communication that extends beyond the classroom,” they said.
Associate Professor Attard and Professor Holmes attribute the success of technology-enhanced mathematics teaching to factors such as the ability to tailor teaching to individuals, rather than a one size fits all approach, allowing self-paced learning and appropriate challenge levels for each student.
“The results of this study illustrate that, in each of the 10 case studies, technology-related practices promoted student engagement,” said the researchers.
“A critical contributing factor to the engagement of students was the ways in which technology enabled learning to extend beyond the classroom and extended opportunities for communication, collaboration, and exploration.”
Associate Professor Attard and Professor Holmes advocate for further research into technology-enabled learning. “Research into the subtle and nuanced ways in which technology-related teacher practices promote engagement is critical if educators are to maximise the benefits to teachers and students offered by current and emerging technologies,” they said.