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Research School Network: Mathematical Motivations – lessons for and from online teaching When the nation went into lockdown, the physical environment of teaching and learning changed overnight.

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Mathematical Motivations – lessons for and from online teaching

When the nation went into lockdown, the physical environment of teaching and learning changed overnight.

I’d feel confident saying that the huge majority of our profession would’ve been plunged into the world of novices, some of us perhaps for the first time since we qualified! Having just completed a masters at the time it made me wonder: how easily could colleagues transfer teaching to an online environment? And when this is all over, what things might we want to keep with us?

I started off by looking at a few different areas: there was this brilliant researchED talk by Professor Paul Kirschner, this webinar from Ambition Institute, along with a few blogs from writers such as Harry Fletcher-Wood and Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion). A big takeaway for me was that student motivation and attention would one of the biggest challenges. In a classroom we have a number of tools at our disposal to help students stay focused: our constant scanning of the room, a gentle tap on a desk of a pupil whose eyes have strayed from the board. Crucially, these all rely on us seeing the students. In the absence of this, how might we keep students focused and motivated?

A lot of the research on motivation demonstrate the importance of experiencing success. Whilst we can tell students they’re capable of something, what actually motivates them is being able to do that thing. In a classroom we can see
when a student is struggling. That is a luxury that we don’t have when online teaching with cameras off. Students would need to become much more resilient and independently motivated. Here I saw the parallels with recommendation 5 of the EEF guidance report on Improving Mathematics, specifically around helping students stay motivated and overcome maths anxiety.

Having identified that motivation is key not only in online teaching, but also in general teaching, I looked at my current practice to see what opportunities there would be to transfer some of what I’m already doing, and if there’s anything I would change about my classroom practice when I returned to the classroom.

There are two strategies in particular that I first came across through Emma McCrea’s book Making Every Maths Lesson Count and when looking at cognitive load theory (Mr Barton also discusses these here):

  • Example-problem pairs
  • Partially worked solutions

Example-problem pairs


Maths image worked examples

Partially worked solutions


I find this particularly helpful when showing students techniques that involve a large number of steps as it allows them to focus on a few small steps at a time. For example, a problem involving simultaneous equations has a number of different steps, and so I will go through 1 or two examples with fully worked solutions, and then slowly begin leaving out steps towards the end for students to finish.

As with example-problem pairs, this makes it really easy to refer back to the thinking in the original example when students who are struggling need some additional help, and narrows the focus so students don’t get overwhelmed, which is likely to reduce the chances of maths anxiety taking hold.

With both techniques, I always demonstrate the correct answer to student problems afterwards.

Why it’s helpful for online…


Both of these techniques allow me to break the teaching down into very small manageable steps, as well as get students thinking very early on. I find my own focus and attention wavering in the best of online lessons! So giving students regular pauses for work is likely to ensure they stay on task.

Why it’s helpful for classroom…


I think the key benefit in a classroom is feedback. Previously, when a student was stuck I would ask questions, put some steps in for them relating to the question they are asking about. These techniques allow me to point to equivalent steps on a different
problem, so students are having to think much harder about what to do and how to do it.

The virtuous cycle


As mentioned previously, motivation dictates how and when students direct their attention, and their attention will dictate what they learn. These techniques break questions down into smaller steps and allow for improved immediate feedback, resulting in a higher chance of autonomous success, which is likely to lead to more motivation, which is likely to lead to more attention being given to the learning, and the creation of a virtuous cycle:

Greenshaw maths blog image 2

Amarbeer Singh Gill
Lead Practitioner (Maths)
St John’s Catholic Comprehensive School

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