Students listening to a teacher in math classWhat makes students lose interest in math and sciences? There is a well-documented decline in engagement and motivation with the sciences when students reach eighth and ninth grade, which is a concern for teachers and policy-makers alike. Researchers at the Technische Universität München (TUM), in collaboration with Stanford University, recently asked: is this decline in interest inevitable? The researchers designed an interactive teacher-training program to help typically rigid math and science teachers communicate more effectively and openly with students. The result was that students’ motivation for math increased by the end of the school year.

A group of math and physics teachers for eighth and ninth grade students participated in a 20-hour professional development program that lasted throughout the school year. The teachers participated in seminars and analyzed video recordings of their own classroom teaching. The training was unique in that it was not a one-day event, required educators to thoughtfully evaluate their own teaching practice, and equipped instructors with the communication skills to better encourage their students. The teachers’ students were surveyed regarding their interest level, motivation, and self-assessed level of competence at the beginning and end of the year. Another group of teachers served as the control—they did professional development on the same topic, but did not undergo the entire training regimen.

For the majority of students of teachers who participated in TUM’s training program, interest levels, motivation, and perceived competence increased. These results indicate that the typical adolescent hemorrhage in math interest is not inevitable, but can be staunched by better communication skills from math and science teachers. TUM has already adapted its teacher training program to include role play of various teaching techniques.

“In our view, one of the key success factors was the fact that the group worked together on a topic over a longer period of time and was able to apply their learnings to a concrete classroom situation. This was a lot more effective than isolated one-day workshops every couple of months, the content of which is quickly forgotten given the daily pressures of a teaching environment,” concluded Professor Tina Seidel of the TUM School of Education.

This research was presented in symposium at the EARLI conference in Munich, Germany.

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