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Teaching, Mathematics and Teaching Math.

Finding Motivation – The Mathematics RPG

Posted by forumjoe on June 14, 2010

{I’m getting a few visitors from Riley Lark’s Virtual Conference on Soft Skills which is great to see. Hi, everyone.
If you’re a teacher and you’ve got a few spare minutes, I’d really appreciate it if you could fill out a survey for me. I’m gathering data about teachers around the world, and I really need more responses from everywhere. There’s only a few questions about how many hours you work, so if you want to help out go to this post of my blog. Cheers!}

Five students, Huh?

I have one Year 8 class that is specifically modified to give attention to those students who need it most.  Five students in the class, with modified content that is supposed to be “within their grasp”.  These are students with identified difficulties in learning mathematics for various reasons.

Although there’s only five students in this class, there’s still a larger range of learning styles, abilities and personalities in this class than in a normal-sized class of 24.  I have to diversify teaching methods and content just as much, if not more, compared to my other classes.  But the biggest problem of all is motivation.

Motivation?

Yeah, motivation.  It’s hard to describe how these students look at the mathematical world, although I’m sure anyone who’s taught a similar class will understand. There’s nothing you can possibly do to make it interesting (not even the WCYDWT suggestions I’ve tried) because a probable response will be a shrugging of the shoulders and a “who cares?”. They’re all awesome kids, and I love them all, but I know I’m not reaching them. Just going through the motions and teaching them what I can. Anything they do pick up is a bonus. It’s a sad state of affairs.

A lack of motivation leads to other problems.  Organisation was an issue, with many students not even bringing anything to class most days.  Absenteeism was high from this class at the beginning of the year.  General refusal to attempt anything asked of them

But over the last four weeks, I have at least got them to look forward to coming to Maths class, which is something that 4 months ago I would have thought impossible.

The Mathematics RPG – Making the entire course into a game

I started awarding XP to students for things that would benefit their learning (re: Behaviour I wanted to see).  These range from “Turning up to class on time” to “submitting homework” and losing points for things that interrupt the flow of conversation.    I started out by giving each student a list of these instructions, with a list of things they can earn and lose points for. Get the sheet here: 8 Modified Maths – The RPG (if you want an editable doc, just ask).

As additional motivation (since points just aren’t enough) I needed a levelling mechanic and a way to specialise their character.  I designed these fairly simplisticly initially, as I just needed something simple I could run with.

The Effect

I had no idea if this was going to work, but anything was worth a try.  Here’s what happened.

The kids didn’t care.  It just seemed like a boring idea, and they thought they’d have to add up their own points or do some maths or something, and it looked too much like Maths.   But I had an excel spreadsheet ready to go to keep track of their score, and had it on the screen during the first lesson I implemented.  Kids started earning some points anyway (just by paying attention) but no one seemed to care.   At the beginning of the next lesson, everyone who was there on time automatically got 10 points, and something surprising happened.  The two who showed up late were UPSET that they didn’t get the points.  Thought they were disadvantaged by not being early, so they worked harder during the lesson to catch up! I’ve never seen these two kids contribute so much in class all year, but all of a sudden they cared about the game.

And from there it’s built and built and built.  Kids have suggested things that should be worth points (and even some things you should lose points for).  If I really want to get attention I can say that participating in this discussion will earn you 20 XP.  They are really excited at the idea of getting to level to choose a specialisation (none of them have it it yet).  They are eager to come to maths to earn more points to get ahead, or to catch up, it’s really exciting to see.  As a side note, they’re getting better results too, but that’s academic.  They’re enjoying coming to class, that’s the important thing.

What would I do differently?

Nothing really.  Starting simple and building on it makes it easy to get to grips with early.  I plan on adding extra mechanics as we go along, when the novelty wears off (it shows no signs of that yet) The only downside is that it’s manageable precisely because there are five students in the class.  I track scores for everyone, I put the leaderboard up on the screen I can see easily who’s got all their gear, etc.  In a class of 24, this could get pretty damn tricky.  I haven’t decided if I’ll attempt to bring a stripped down version to my larger classes or not, but for the moment it’s working.

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5 Responses to “Finding Motivation – The Mathematics RPG”

  1. Ian Byrd said

    Love it! I’ve been kicking around a similar idea for a year or so. You’ve just motivated me to implement it. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Anne said

    I love this idea. I might think about adding point if your test score goes up by 10%. I personally would love for more places to add “improvement points.”

    How did your students do working through the levels? Was it quick? Are you on an everyday schedule?

    btw. your blog is great.

  3. Rachael said

    HA! I just started running my first RPG game as a noob GM (all for fun). This is a great idea, though, I might have to try it out. I’m excited to see how it shapes up if you get to use it this next year.

  4. Wendy said

    I love this idea. I have a class of juniors (mostly boys) who are still struggling to pass their algebra exam. And some fairly maladaptive behavior accompanies their poor math skills. I have a couple of questions about implementation, if you don’t mind. You said you had the spreadsheet up on the screen the first day of class. Did you add points to it right there in class? After the first day, did you keep a chart posted?

    Finally, do you think part of the success was the size of the group? My students are in a class of 25+; some students might become easily discouraged and revert to habits of cutting, not trying, acting out.

    Thanks for sharing this great idea.

    • forumjoe said

      Thanks for the comment Wendy.

      1) Yes, I added points to it right there in class. I didn’t keep the chart posted every lesson but I found I had to give updates fairly regularly (at least once a week), and usually the easiest way to do this was to put the excel sheet up on the projector.

      2) I don’t know that the success was due to the size of the group, but certainly the management of my solution becomes unwieldy with larger groups. As the class gets bigger the problems I would expect to find are about management and time-dedication rather than disinterest and lack-of-focus.

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