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For Teachers Updated April 19, 2018

Tips in Teaching a Hands-On Math Curriculum

By Room 241 Team September 28, 2012

A hands-on math curriculum gives students real-world examples of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, making mathematics more relevant to their lives.  Math is one of the most difficult subjects for students to learn — no matter how good their teachers or textbooks are — which is why many educators have turned to hands-on learning to help young people grasp basic mathematics and advanced concepts like algebra and geometry.

Fortunately, many hands-on math curriculum strategies have already been developed, so educators do not have to start their programs  from scratch. Teachers should keep these tips in mind adding hands-on techniques to their educational arsenal:

Be aware of context when creating or choosing activities

A hands-on math curriculum has to vary by grade level: The algebra of a high school student is nothing like the finger-counting of a first-grader.

Real-world examples should not go over the heads of students, even if the lessons are pertinent to the real world, such as counting money. Students in first or second grade will respond more to counting that has an immediate effect in their lives outside of school. Instead of counting dollars, have them count basketball goals or the number of cards played in a game of Go Fish. These lessons give students instant value and make it easy for them to continue practicing at home.

EdChange also found that children respond naturally to game-like activities.

Borrow lessons from other educators

The good news for teachers who would like to begin using a hands-on math curriculum is that many of their colleagues have already traveled the hands-on path and left plenty of tools along the way. Starting out with pre-designed math activities gives teachers a head start on creating their own hands-on activities and finding the types of challenges that seem most effective for their classes.

Hands-on math activities can be found on websites like Math Central, Math Activities and The Futures Channel.

Once teachers become comfortable with the idea of working with a hands-on math curriculum in their classrooms, they can start creating activities of their own and molding them into specific lesson plans.

Build lessons into a big hands-on project

Hands-on math activities can increase comprehension and retention of math concepts, but they also take time. Getting through all the required math concepts in a school year may be impossible if the instructor uses activities to illustrate every lesson.

Educators can save time while still getting the most out of a hands-on curriculum by combining several math concepts into a single hands-on project. A building project, for instance, requires measurements, geometric shapes, angles and even weight capacities. By teaching all of these concepts in the class periods leading up to the project, students can combine all the lessons into one hands-on learning experience.

Though studies prove hands-on math work to be effective, this may not be due to context alone. Generally, when hands-on activities are used to illustrate a lesson, students end up spending more time on each concept than they would on bookwork alone. Longer exposure times, and repetition of the same idea (as in the counting game where everyone in the class gets to take a turn) may have as much of a positive effect on retention as does the hands-on nature of the task.

Whatever individual factors come into play, hands-on learning has proven an effective tool in teaching math concepts from basic to advanced. A study of a South Texas College math class showed that adding hands-on learning to the curriculum resulted in a 13 percent increase in the number of students who passed the class.

Discover other strategies for teaching mathematics in our MEd degree concentration for math teachers in our Curriculum & Instruction: Mathematics program. 

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