Improving Students' Math Proficiency

We can help our students improve math proficiency by using a cross-curricular approach and multiple problem-solving techniques.

By Donna Iadipaolo

Improving Students' Math Proficiency

There have been many opportunities in our relatively short history to chant “U.S.A. #1!” In Olympics and other world sporting events, space travel, and even internet technology, America has, at times, led the world. However, this is not the case with mathematics, a field where we have never claimed first place.

U.S. Ranking in Mathematics

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an organization that conducts a survey of 15-year-olds in industrialized countries, United States students rank 32nd in math proficiency when compared to their counterparts from 65 countries around the world. Students from schools in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland, Taiwan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Massachusetts, and Japan scored the highest.

Interestingly enough, Finland, one of the high-performing countries, does not place a great deal of emphasis on standardized testing, does not expect children to start school until age seven, and requires that teachers earn a master’s degree. Also notable, when looking through the data, is the fact that students in Massachusetts are performing at the same level as those in Japan.

How to Improve Student Performance

So what practices can we put in place to help our students attain mathematical proficiency? What follows is a partial list of recommendations made by the International Academy of Education in its report “Improving Student Achievement in Mathematics:”

Emphasize the Meaning

Emphasize the mathematical meanings of ideas, including how the idea, concept or skill is connected in multiple ways to other mathematical ideas in a logically consistent and sensible manner.

  • Put an emphasis on learning many different approaches and strategies to solve each mathematical problem. This will naturally lead to making connections between different concepts, ideas, and skills.
  • Students should know multiple strategies for solving equations, such as constructing a table, using algebraic manipulation, graphing, and utilizing various technologies.
  • Time should be spent having students learn multiple approaches to solving a problem rather than devoting hours to the “drill and kill” method of doing the same kind of problem, the same way, a hundred times.

Use Project-Based Learning

Create a classroom learning context in which students can construct meaning.

  • Incorporate purposeful project-based learning within the classroom to further students' ability to respond to and construct meaning from complex issues, problems, or challenges.
  • Students may create their own driving questions for investigations and explore personal areas of interest. They might come up with questions that seek to understand real-world relationships or connections, such as “How is the time spent in a sports game related to the number of points scored?”

Make Cross-Curricular Connections

Make explicit the connections between mathematics and other subjects.

  • Conduct interdisciplinary activities. For example, when learning how to graph, integrate history by graphing social statistics, such as changes over time in the population of Irish immigrants in the United States.
  • Connect algebra to physics by exploring how the concept of direct variation is related to the concept of force.
  • When introducing the concept of logarithms, first look at the way certain scientific scales are developed for measuring sound, earthquakes, and acidity, instead of only focusing on how the exponential form of an equation translates to the logarithmic form of an equation.

Identify Individual Learning Styles

Attend to student meanings and student understanding in instruction.

  • Be mindful of the various ways students understand a given mathematical idea.
  • Students’ methods for solving problems and carrying out procedures will often vary. 
  • Keep in mind Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner argues that there are a wide variety of approaches to learning; therefore, teachers should utilize many different approaches for instruction and assessment purposes.

Lessons to Enhance Math Proficiency

Effects of Urban Growth

In this lesson, students explore the impact of urban growth on U.S. society. Students divide into groups to determine the cause and effect of population growth. They then make surveys, record results, and present their findings in a final project.

The Big Picture: Economic Security in the Country and Your Community

Students explore what economic security means in their own community and at the national level within this lesson. Students conduct research, analyze data, and draw conclusions concerning high-priority economics issues in their community.

Rhinos and M&M's

Students collect data in a paper folding and M&M investigation and then analyze the exponential functions created. Students use graphing calculators to create scatter plots that form exponential functions and use these exponential functions to predict future rhino populations.

Minimum and Maximum Perimeter

Students strategize how to vary different numbers of tiles to form shapes and find minimum and maximum perimeters. Students examine area with either square tiles or geoboards.


Math Guide

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Donna Iadipaolo