Q&A: Teaching Students with Poor Math Skills, a High Failure Rate, and Little Motivation


I teach in an inner city high school with heterogeneous classes (in which there are all skill levels), poor attendance, a transient population (students enter and leave all year long), and sadly, many students who, due to different social problems, are unmotivated to learn. The projects which I have seen in your journal assume basic math skills. Unfortunately many of my students have poor skills, and yet are expected to pass Algebra I (which is our lowest level math offered). Needless to say, we have a high failure rate in our school. I would love to do some type of projects with these students, so if you have any other ideas, I would be very happy to hear them.
Marie Feragne (North Providence, Rhode Island)


I have yet to find a teacher anywhere that feels that students come to the course with the proper fundamental math skills. Albiet, your situation is tougher than most. Attack the problem of basic skills; but instead of stopping to reteach them, review the skills briefly. In our Algebra classes at Great Oak High School, we commit Mondays to practicing the arthimetic skills needed for the topics that week. (i.e. integers when solving equations, fractions when simplifying rational expressions). Don’t be afraid to use a project or activity. By constantly presenting complex problems, the students will acquire the necessary skills quicker than you think.

Work hard at getting kids to understand the concepts behind the mathematics. It has been our experience the students have an easier time understanding concepts than memorizing algorithms.

Do more activities in the classroom, and assign less homework. Dynamic lessons are themselves a motivating factor in the classroom. Think of all the faculty meetings and professional development sessions you’ve been through. What could have been done to engage your mind more. The same answer will work for your students.

As far as motivating students, nobody has found the complete answer to that one. We have laid out in detail our grading policies in an article “Nuts & Bolts.” Here is a brief glimpse of two key components, both the carrot and the stick, of that grading system:

  1. Cumulative Tests & Quizzes: This requires both teacher and students to revisit material continually through the course, instead of just “testing & forgetting.” It also offers the slower student an opportunity to acquire necessary skills. The incentive that we offer is that the student test score (50% of the overall grade) is assigned the test average or the most recent test, whichever is higher. This encourages students to not quit, and offers a light at the end of the tunnel, which is rare in traditional grading systems.
  2. Incomplete Policy: The student must submit an appropriate product for each major project assigned, or the student will receive an incomplete which equates to an ‘F’ on the report card. In other words, the students may not skip major assignments.

Chris Shore, Editor

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