Dr Phil Stephenson

Posted date: Mon Aug 26 17:00:00 SGT 2013 Mon Aug 26 17:00:00 SGT 2013

Motivating Students in a Mathematics Class

I have been teaching mathematics courses in the University of London programme at SIM for more than 15 years.  Although I have improved a lot as a lecturer since 1996, there is still much room for improvement.

A lecturer should endeavour to motivate the students.  Some ways of doing this include making the material relevant to prior learning, reminding the students of the rewards that they will receive if they do well in the course, offering extra help to weak students, and offering continuous assessment.

Continuous assessment is useful as it encourages students to study throughout the year.  It also helps the lecturer to discover which parts of the syllabus have not been learned as well as intended, and which can therefore be taught again in a more in-depth and interesting way.

The lecturer should encourage students to ask questions and to suggest answers to any questions posed by the lecturer.  Good questions and good answers should be praised.  Poor questions and incorrect answers should be tackled tactfully so as not to humiliate the student.

When teaching a new topic, the important points should be revealed gradually.  The lecturer can ask students to guess the next step when solving a problem.  The lecturer should try to relate the lecture content to real life or to some personal incident.  Telling the occasional joke, giving a puzzle and showing the occasional relevant cartoon helps to make the lecture more interesting.

A good lecturer is well prepared, will maintain eye contact throughout the lecture, be humorous, vary the volume and pitch of the voice, vary facial expressions, use props, avoid reading out loud from the notes for a long time, and not be rooted to one place while teaching.

For example, I use the visualiser to explain step-by-step how to tackle a particular problem.  I then invite the students to try a similar example or two, during which time I circulate so that I can see how students are coping and give help to those who are struggling.  Rationale:  Students may have a short attention span, so it is not a good idea to just speak non-stop for the duration of the lecture, and secondly, I want to make sure that as many students as possible are comfortable with the material discussed in the previous 10 minutes or so before moving onto the next topic. 

Another reason for circulating is that if many students are having the same difficulty then I am able to detect this, and be able to follow up by highlighting the problem to all students.  Trying to solve a problem is the best way to know if you have understood that topic.

The cycle of demonstrating some problem, followed by students attempting a similar example while I circulate, is repeated throughout the lecture.

Immediately after the interval, I give a puzzle to lighten the mood and to force students to use lateral thinking.  Occasionally, I show an amusing video instead.

I encourage students to interrupt me at any time during the lecture, to ask a question or make a comment, etc.  I also invite questions or comments after demonstrating each example.

Article contributor: Dr Phil Stephenson
Dr Phil Stephenson was awarded the Teaching Merit Award during the Faculty Appreciation Dinner 2011. He also received his 15-year long service award