Power of Student Choice: Motivating Learners Who Struggle With Math

4 Min Read
Math Expressions Gr K 0 Z1 A7265

Outside of the polar vortexes and sudden snowstorms, winter is growing on me because there’s nothing like standing outside when it snows and having an opportunity to hear . . . nothing. I take advantage of those quiet moments as I watch the snow fall (or pause from my grumbling about shoveling snow) to reflect. When I was a school principal, I used this time of year to review my students’ cumulative progress on their benchmark assessments and to reflect with teachers on how to continue to meet students’ needs. My favorite part of those meetings was to hear and share student celebrations that added details to the stories of positive change that teachers and leaders were witnessing in their classrooms.

I continue this tradition at mid-year meetings when I meet with district and school leaders to discuss MATH 180 implementation and data. I often hear stories from leaders and teachers who tell me about how their students who demonstrated characteristics of struggling learners—such as being disengaged, unmotivated, or disruptive—begin to change their learning mindset and become engaged in mathematical conversations. It’s great to see the pride these students and educators have in their new knowledge in a matter of months.

MATH 180 is an intervention program to accelerate students’ readiness for algebra in Grades 5–12 and was designed to support teachers with making mathematics accessible by focusing on rebuilding key foundational concepts and skills in a blended learning model. Students are able to learn mathematics through meaningful practice and engaging in tasks connected to 21st-century careers and real-world mathematics, which provides them with the opportunity to see their knowledge put into relatable context.

During a recent meeting with a Virginia district leader, she shared how their special education students who are using the MATH 180 program are seeing success and are therefore more motivated in their learning. More than 60% of those students have shown an average gain of more than 100 Quantile measures halfway through the district’s first year of implementation. Sixteen of the students were originally recommended for a different intervention program but on this program have made an average gain of 300 Quantile measures or more.

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“We have to engage students, get them to think critically, and build strong connections with teachers,” said Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who serves as one of the program’s advisors and as President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Students are more likely to be motivated when they have the flexibility to make decisions about their own learning and see value in their efforts.”

To accelerate learning, it’s important to allow students to make choices about their learning, as it will increase their motivation and challenge them to understand key mathematical concepts and skills. The MATH 180 program enables student choice through digital experiences:

  • Explore Zone: Students begin in the Explore Zone and watch an Anchor Video that features mathematics in a real-world event. After watching the video, students choose how they are going to solve a real-world mathematical problem related to a 21st-century career and explain their mathematical thinking in writing.
  • Learn Zone: Students can accelerate their learning by using Fast Track if they understand a mathematical concept. If students solve three challenging problems correctly, they can advance to the Success Zone.
  • Success Zone: Students are allowed to choose different questions types to apply their mathematical understanding they learned in the last section. Students have an option to choose from one of nine difficult questions to earn points.  
  • Brain Arcade: Students practice mathematical concepts and skills they are learning through games designed to build fluency. As students progress through the software, they unlock new levels of the games. They have a choice of 15 games that feature multiplication/division, fractions, and decimals.

Allowing students the ability to make choices during math lessons and applying their knowledge to the real world can help accelerate learning for struggling math students. I’ve seen a lot of success from educators using the MATH 180 program to support their students who struggle with mathematics. How have you implemented student choice in your math classroom to motivate student learning?


MATH 180 is a blended learning program designed to address the needs of struggling students and their teachers, equally. Learn about the research behind MATH 180.

Get our FREE guide "Optimizing the Math Classroom: 6 Best Practices."

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