How Maths Can Be Taught Engagingly  

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Date of Publication: 21 January 2019

Students losing interest in class – it’s something every tutor or teacher has come across before. Especially if they’re teaching a rather complex matter on a warm summer’s afternoon. But when it comes to Mathematics, it’s never been more important to engage students throughout sessions, to ensure fundamental skills and knowledge are being learnt. 

Mathematics as a subject, is one that is so often rated by students as difficult to feel inspired, or rated as ‘tedious,’ perhaps due to its complexity in certain areas. In fact, according to Times Higher Education, Mathematics remains one of the least popular subjects for female students in the UK to choose at an undergraduate level. 

But when a subject plays such an integral role in our daily lives, how do you ensure students remain engaged to allow information to transpire effectively? This is something we have spent time on in the past to achieve, maximising tutor sessions and framing independent study in a way that ensures students remain focused, extend their knowledge of their subject, and most importantly, have fun.

Our Mathematics summer courses remain one of the most popular we offer, perhaps due to the autonomous nature of the learning environment we create in our seminars and tutorials. And most students (9 out of 10)  leave our courses reporting that they have a better understanding of their subject. But what does it take to make an Oxford maths course truly engaging? It’s something we’ve been exploring for a while, and have decided to share some of our findings below. 

 

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Using Mathematics Everyday: The Oxford Summer Courses Way

Before we take a look at how Oxford Maths courses can be taught engagingly, we’re going to take a look at how the subject influences our everyday lives, including the daily operations of the team here at the Oxford Summer Courses. So, when you next find yourself sitting in one of your Maths classes at school, thinking ‘when am I ever going to use this?’ – you’ll understand how much of an important role it plays in day-by-day tasks.

Let’s begin with Kester Brewin’s convincing article in the Times Educational Supplement, which makes the case for the power of maths to communicate complex information in a simple way, uniquely amongst the STEM subjects. 

His article chimes with the Oxford Summer Courses team, where it’s crucial we have no more than 8 students per seminar – for the most inclusive learning experience – and that we have the right number of girls and boys in the accommodation blocks to avoid mixing genders. We manage the complexity of doing this across 2,500 students and 30 Oxbridge colleges and elite boarding schools using dashboards that display important information in a simple way. That is, we use Mathematics in everything we do to make the student experience smooth, easy, and most importantly, of the highest quality.

 

Creating An Engaging Maths Summer School, UK

Later in his article, Kester argues that Maths needs to be made interesting and accessible to win students over. After all, how can you expect a student to leave your classroom feeling inspired if the content didn’t resonate with them?

In the past, we’ve worked with “celebrity” tutor Dr Tom Crawford who has spent a lot of time and effort trying to popularise maths. When not teaching undergraduates at the University of Oxford, Tom has regularly appeared on the BBC and Naked Scientist productions, winning over a new generation of young mathematicians by applying mathematical queries to things that affect our daily lives, including how the earth’s rotation affects the accuracy of shots in sports. and why bees build hexagonal honeycombs (clue: it’s not aesthetic).

Guided by their expert knowledge and previous student feedback, our tutors refresh their syllabi every single year, to ensure the most engaging seminars and tutorials on our Oxford maths courses. With an average class size of just 4 students, it’s essential that each and every student that joins us is invested in the material they’re learning, so they leave with an increased understanding of their subject, and most importantly, a renewed appreciation and excitement to further their studies. 

Even before they join us, we encourage our students to submit the topics they’re currently covering in school or wish to explore further, so our tutors can tailor the classes to focus on the areas which interest them the most.

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An ‘Engaging’ Maths Summer School UK – What Does it Mean?

Before we begin to explore how we strive to create our engaging Oxford and Cambridge university Maths summer school, it’s important we establish what exactly we are looking for when we speak of the word ‘engaging.’

If you look at the etymology of ‘engaging,’ or ‘engagement,’ the word derives from the idea of having a type of contractual agreement between a person or thing. That is, an agreement in place: 

an arrangement to do something, or to be somewhere (source: Cambridge dictionary)

 

When students apply for their selected date on our summer courses, they are in fact, subconsciously entering into an agreement: a commitment to arrive at our courses, inspired, and prepared to participate in the learning sessions and extracurricular activities.  

Every seminar or tutorial they come to, they are entering into an arrangement with their tutor – a promise to respect and respond to what the tutor prepares for the class. In this case, the tutor is also making a promise – an agreement – that they will bring the content and transform it into a lively, interesting, and almost life-like experience. 

You, the student, will need to wrestle with the information they bring, delve deep into its understanding, and work hard to remember it. Engagement, in this sense, is a type of loosely-bound pact between tutor and student.

 

What Does an Engaging Maths Summer School in the UK Look Like?

When we think of being engaged and invested in our learning, it usually means that we have positive feelings about the topics we’re covering, mainly because they have a purpose to us. In fact, research has found that students who are often the most engaged have an emotional connection, and, above all, a cognitive engagement to the material they are learning. That is, when we are emotionally invested in the topics we’re learning, we don’t need to exert any additional mental effort to bring ourselves back into the present of the seminar or tutorial.

Interesting dilemmas are seen as a precursor to learning, so the tendency for many of our tutor’s seminars to include the application of Mathematical theory to a real-life situation is critical to hook students in and understand why it’s important that they learn the content they are being presented with.

Problem solving is a task we have to navigate throughout our own life and work, but for mathematicians, it’s their speciality. When studying with us in Oxford or at our Cambridge University maths summer school, your tutor will show you various methods of problem solving, encouraging you to think about what makes a good solution, and how to guarantee its accuracy as a method of evaluation.

The aim: for students to leave enthused about a subject they love, equipped with ways to approach situations in their daily lives more systematically. And of course, with an enhanced understanding of Mathematical theory and the subject as a whole. 

 

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3 Ways to Make Teaching Maths More Engaging

If we are to increase retention rates and ensure engagement throughout, it’s obvious that teaching needs to go further than simply making learning sessions meaningful and connected to students’ everyday lives. On top of using real-life problem solving strategies to engage students, lots of research has been carried out to find ways to make teaching more engaging, particularly in subjects like Mathematics which often have difficult theories to grasp. 

Some of the most successful ways – and indeed, some of the most influential methods our tutors use for making our Oxford maths courses more engaging include:

1. Foster An Atmosphere for Success

As we mentioned above, one of the main triggers for finding a learning session engaging is by having an emotional connection to the topic matter, namely, having positive feelings towards it. Most commonly, these feelings arise when we begin to grasp and understand the topic – leaving us with a sense of achievement. That feeling of ‘wow, I really understand this.’

According to common social cognitive theory (Bandura), self-efficacy – defined as our perceived capabilities to understand and learn new materials – is a key variable when it comes to feeling motivated and committed to learning. This is backed by a 2012 study by Schunk & Mullen who explored how personal motivation affected students’ engagement in lessons. Unsurprisingly, their results showed that students who believe they are succeeding in their learning have a subsequent desire to keep learning and remain motivated throughout their classes. 

Therefore, for anyone looking to make teaching maths for engaging, it’s paramount that a sense of competence is fostered in the classroom. This could include activities such as:

  • Tailoring sessions so that the material is only slightly beyond the students’ current levels of proficiency – so that attainment is more easily achieved.
  • Encourage students to demonstrate their understanding throughout the class – this could be asking them to explain a concept to a peer, or engage in debates or evaluations of topics.
  • Provide regular feedback in class so that students can make daily, weekly, or monthly progress with ease.

These activities, and more, is what surrounds the whole premise of our Oxford maths  courses. With small classes and weekly tutorial sessions (for students between the ages of 16-17, and 18-24 years-old), we foster an environment that encourages every student to contribute – so our tutors can see if you have understood the material. For anything that is unclear, our expert tutors will frame the material in a new way, based on the area which you may be struggling with. 

 

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2. Support Autonomy

What’s one of the most effective ways for helping students to focus their attention and encourage them to invest in their learning? Help them to feel in control of their learning. Studies from the early noughties have explored the idea of autonomous learning and its effects on the engagement rate of students in Western classes. And findings unveiled that when teachers relinquish their control in the lesson, and act more as a guide for students with which to steer their learning, a student’s retention and engagement is likely to increase as a result.

Now, when we think about autonomous learning, we probably think about stepping back and allowing students to take control over their behaviours during a lesson. But at Oxford Summer Courses, we take this one step further, and, in a way, allow the students to steer their learning sessions.

For example, in their tutorial sessions, students will be prompted by certain questions or topics, but it’s the discussion they bring to the table which directs the hour-long conversation in a particular way. Furthermore, students are set pre-tutorial reading and/or work, and encouraged to read beyond the set material if they so wish. As you can imagine, by doing this preparatory work and reading, our students then arrive at their tutorials eager to discuss new ideas and points of interest which they’ve discovered from their very own independent study

3. Embrace Collaborative Learning

The idea of collaborative learning has been found to be another powerful facilitation in maintaining student engagement in class. It’s been evidenced that when students are encouraged to work and offer feedback to one another, their engagement tends to be increased (Wentzel, 2009). Most importantly, it’s this sense of connection to others and a fulfilling role within the group activity which helps amplify these engagement rates. (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Collaborative learning is another technique we prioritise during our Cambridge and Oxford maths courses. Having small class sizes (an average of 4 students) allows everyone to collaborate during seminars. On top of this, with many of our students being international, bringing their own facts, knowledge and backgrounds to the subject and sharing new information, students gain a more rounded understanding of their subject – just another benefit from using collaborative learning effectively in the classroom.

Further to these points, during our courses you are encouraged to share your work not just with the tutor, but with one another, so you can peer review and gain even more feedback on how to improve your skill – which will be invaluable to helping you expand on your ideas and ensure your work is clear and coherent for anyone that reads it.

 

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Summary

Mathematics plays an integral role in our everyday lives; from paying the bills to daily work tasks, it’s paramount that we equip students with the knowledge needed to excel with this subject. Even in the most creative pursuits, having a good grasp of figures is essential. Think of an artist. They couldn’t run a studio and price their pieces effectively without the fundamentals skills. 

The key to learning success is engagement in class. Learning even the most complex of Mathematical theories needs to feel effortless in terms of cognitive effort, without the student needing to remind themselves to regain focus. 

In this case, there are a few factors that can improve student engagement rates in Maths; from applying problem solving to real-life situations, to putting students at the forefront of the learning process, making it fully autonomous – the tutor is key to fostering an environment that inspires and retains students’ throughout.  So, even if you’re someone who “doesn’t like maths”, there’s still hope: perhaps you just need to find the right tutor who finds ways to engage you in the subject.

 

Be Inspired with a Maths Summer School Here in the UK

Want to pursue your passion for Mathematics? Immerse yourself on one of our Maths summer school UK programmes and be inspired by our team of expert tutors. 

Stay and study in a top university city with our Cambridge University maths summer school. We also run our own Oxford maths courses, so you have the option to join us in one (or both) of these famous cities. Courses start from two-weeks in length – the optimal length of time to engross yourself in a subject you love – but with the option to extend if you wish. 

To find out more about these courses, and any others we have on offer, please contact our admissions office. Alternatively, you can submit an application to study with us below.

Apply now

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