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Making Math More Relevant and Useful

NOTE: The following are excepts and exercises from Add-Ventures for Girls: Building Math Confidence, a curriculum with fun, hands-on activities to help teachers expose middle school students to the exciting world of math, available from WEEA. To order call 800-793-5076 or order online. Code #2810, $17.00.

Many junior high school students do not see how mathematics is relevant to their daily lives or how it will be useful in future careers. The way we teach math does not often emphasize its usefulness to students. Because the utility value of mathematics, as perceived by students, has been found to be a strong predictor of enrollment in elective math courses in high school, it is important that we stress the ways math can be used while we teach math skills.
  • Both male and female students who perceived math as useful to them were more likely to persist in its study. (Pedro et al. 198 1)
  • Perceived usefulness of mathematics is also related to math achievement in high school. (Chipman and Wilson 1985)
  • As early as seventh grade, boys rate math as more useful than do girls. (Stage et al. 1985)
  • Although gender differences seem to be narrowing, boys still judge mathematics to be more useful for themselves than do girls.(Chipman and Wilson 1985)
  • In a study of senior honors English students, very few could think of a way that they currently use mathematics in their daily lives. (Franklin, Mueller, and Blankenship 1987)

The following suggestions should give you some ideas about how you can introduce more information about math usefulness, while still using class time to teach math skills and concepts.


  1. Stress real-life problems in math. Search your classroom environment for math-related problems that are relevant to students' immediate lives and needs. For example, figure the percentage of students who choose each leisure activity as their favorite. Determine the average number of writing implements in each desk or the number of minutes available for each student at the computer, given the number of students, computers, and computer time. Or, compute the average number of minutes students spend sleeping, watching television, or at school.
  2. Select a group of lunch preference counters who collect data for the class to make graphs of daily and weekly hot lunch eating patterns, and possibly even determine the cafeteria's best meals.
  3. When planning class parties, fundraisers, and soon, let the class determine the amounts of ingredients, the costs of items, and the profits.
  4. Your local newspaper can provide the basis for many interesting, relevant, and timely math activities. For example, you can use stock quotes on the financial pages as the basis for an activity in which students make "paper investments," track their stocks, make graphs, figure percentage increase or decreases, and so forth. Articles about financial conditions and businesses can serve as the basis for problems about earnings, interest rates, discounts, etc. The sports pages are also full of statistics that can be used as the basis of problems and activities with decimals, fractions, and averages.
  5. Another excellent source of interesting data for class projects is the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Your community library should have copies of current reports. The Census catalog and guide for 1988 includes abstracts and ordering information for reports on topics such as population, transportation, agriculture, and business. There are also census publications that provide state-by- state data.
  6. Our math curriculum typically does not encourage students to ask, "What purpose is served by solving these problems?" or "Why are we being asked to learn this?" As much as possible, try to give your students a sense of purpose about each math concept they learn. Show how the math they are learning relates to real-life situations and how people can and do use it.
  7. The poster When are we ever gonna have to use this? by Saunders is another great resource you can use to help students see the relevance of various math topics. The poster displays a matrix of 61 different math topics by 100 occupations and is marked to indicate which occupations use each math topic. It is based on research conducted by Saunders, who interviewed people from a variety of occupations to determine the kinds of mathematics they actually use in their work. The poster is available from Dale Seymour Box 10888, Palo Alto, CA 94303, order number D501344. In a 1980 article in the Mathematics Teacher, Saunders describes the research recommendations for making junior high and high school math more relevant and provides an excellent sample of word problems specific to various occupations. The article also includes a table listing math topics ranked by percentage of occupations that use these topics.


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