Articles March 6, 2017 By Sheldon Soper

5 Reasons to Participate in Mathematical Competitions with your Students

The best teachers are always looking for new ways to foster and encourage their students’ learning. One way to add some motivation, excitement, and additional learning opportunities into your math curriculum is to participate in interscholastic competitions.

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The best teachers are always looking for new ways to foster and encourage their students’ learning. One way to add some motivation, excitement, and additional learning opportunities into your math curriculum is to participate in interscholastic competitions.

For example, in the SureMath competition, students in registered elementary and middle school classrooms use their math and problem solving skills to complete problems and test their skills against other students across the globe on a level, culturally neutral playing field. Students are scored based upon accuracy and speed to earn their rankings.

Just the mere fact that a student is using their math repertoire in a new context can be enough to transform boring math exercises into more purpose-driven learning. That being said, there are so many more reasons why participating in academic competitions can be beneficial to your students.

1. Motivation to learn and practice math skills

As a teacher, it is crucial to find ways to get students engaged with the content they need to learn.  Studies have shown that when students have a felt need for learning something, they show improvement in both understanding and retention. Simply put, motivation matters. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be hard to find the right angle to make that motivation take root with students.

For some students, offering the opportunity to participate in an international mathematics competition like SureMath can help stoke a student’s intrinsic drive to learn and interact with new knowledge. Teachers can use the competition as a focal point for lesson objectives and as a motivational tool to help encourage students to want to achieve those objectives.

For students who may not normally be driven by the pursuit of a grade or a natural, intrinsic thirst for knowledge, competitions can be used as a new and refreshing motivational approach.

2. Review key concepts and prevent “learning decay”

Students have a difficult time retaining knowledge they are not regularly asked to put into practice. That being said, it can be easy for a teacher to fall into the trap of simply trying to “cover” all of the year’s material when there are so many concepts and skills crammed into a year-long mathematics course. Sometimes just finding an opportunity to spiral back around to material from earlier in the year can be difficult.

This is problematic. In mathematics, understanding more complex concepts requires mastery over a litany of simpler ones. Often times, it is students’ lack (or loss) of these foundational skills that leads to difficulty and frustration when students are asked to engage with more intricate problems.

The best way to help a student avoid these potential pitfalls is by purposefully providing the opportunity and encouragement to practice.

By embedding competition participation into your pedagogy, you give your students added opportunities to put the entirety of their math knowledge to use throughout the year, regardless of where you are in the curriculum’s progression. This will, in turn, reduce the likelihood that a student will forget or lose key mathematics skills.

3. Help your students develop grit

One of the understated benefits to participating in mathematics competitions with your students is to help them develop a grittier mindset when it comes to encountering difficult problems. It is not uncommon for students to come across a problem in a competition setting that they are not fully prepared to engage with. Whether it is a concept they have not yet mastered or an unfamiliar question format, students with grit will face the challenge head-on and use the tools at their disposal to conquer it.

Building these types of challenging situations into your regular classroom instruction can often be met with resistance from both students and parents; after all, why should a child be assessed on something they may or may not be equipped to handle?

Competitions, on the other hand, draw from a common pool of content designed for competitors regardless of an individual participating school’s curriculum. Therefore, challenge is to be expected.

As a result, teachers can use competitions as safe settings to emphasize and help develop key components of grit like perseverance, goal-setting, and courage (all without the risk of potential blowback from parents over declining grades).

4. Help your students develop a growth-based mindset

Developing a growth-based learning mindset in your classroom requires focusing on how effectively students are expanding their learning and skills. The challenge lies in the fact that traditionally, schools (and in turn, students) focus on high-stakes performance measures like grades and standardized tests rather than an individual student’s ability to grow over time.

Classroom participation in competitions can provide a unique opportunity for students to formatively evaluate their own growth in a way that is not tied to their traditional classroom academic performance. Comparing the data and/or rankings generated by a student’s attempts in a competition can provide a low-stakes measuring stick to be used in conversations about student growth. This can help shift students from focusing solely on a punitive assessment measure (like a grade) and provide a safe context to develop key self-evaluation skills. 

Zooming out to the classroom level, the competition setting can also provide a safe space to foster class-wide awareness and dialogue about growth that is separate from a conversation focused on grades or specific curricular timelines. Competitions can become the catalyst for putting a growth-based mindset front and center for your students.

5. Create a classroom team of learners

Many mathematic competitions, including SureMath, are focused on individual student performances rather than a team-based effort. However, the competition experience can still be utilized as a team-building exercise in your classroom.

Keeping track of your class’s collective competition scores as a running average (rather than publicly sharing individual scores) can be a great way to not only encourage participation in a competition, but promote and reward class-wide improvement. This way, even your struggling mathematicians can be motivated to improve in an effort to do their part for the team.

The real benefit to this type of team-focused perspective (even when the competitions themselves emphasize the individual) is that it adds value in two key executive function areas: collaboration and growth.

As a practical example, the review work required to prepare for competitions can be designated as a collaborative classroom activity whereby students take the initiative to coach each other on challenging material. This type of peer-to-peer learning can be invaluable; studies show that when students have the opportunity to teach and learn from peers, they retain information at significantly higher rates.

Furthermore, there are significant, gains teachers can foster within their classroom community when they make it a point to celebrate improvement in the class’s aggregate performances rather than singling out exceptional performers. This way, when students improve (often thanks to the help of their peers in practice), it can be celebrated as a group success and, in turn, promote even more growth moving forward.

Given all the potential benefits to both your students and your classroom community as a whole, consider registering your students in a mathematics competition like SureMath!

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