Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to get your math class SCREAMING

I know students are not supposed to be using mobile phones in class for private communications*, but I couldn't help but smile when one of my students showed me a text message she had just received from a friend in the class next door : "What are you guys doing in there? We can hear you screaming!"  

If you don't know who these five boys are,
 then you're definitely not teaching at a girls school.

So a little context first (context is everything!): This class doesn't really like maths that much - they tolerate it - I try my best to make it relevant and pleasant, trying to raise their confidence and skill levels. We've been studying a fairly dry topic for the last few weeks - they've done reasonably well in the topic test but need more practice. Looking for something engaging to make the second half of a long double period interesting, I turned to Stu Hasic's Quiz Boxes.

Download Stu's Quiz Boxes at

Quiz Boxes offers a Jeopardy! style game with questions of increasing complexity organised into categories, with a high stakes question at the end. Students love this game - and with careful planning and implementation (you will need to design the questions) it makes for a terrific fun period with high levels of engagement and gets students doing a lot more maths revision than they might have otherwise intended :-). There are many ways you can use Quiz Boxes so I would like to share an approach I have found that works well for classes of all levels of maths achievement. 

Quiz Design
  • Choose categories that students are interested in.  Current hot topics are "One Direction", "Justin Bieber", "Beyonce", "You Tube Hits" and "In the Movies".  Find whatever your class is interested in. Once they play the game, they will suggest topics to you. Since I don't know that much about One Direction, I go to Wikipedia and collect the factual information I need. Find some obscure information for the harder questions. Your students will be amazed you know something so detailed about One Direction - and infuriated most of them don't know it.  I like to use student interests for half the categories, and use more explicit math topic categories for the rest.
  • Work maths into the "non-maths" categories. For example, my third question on One Direction was "What percentage of One Direction are boys?". OK - it is a simple question - but it reinforces the idea that 100% means "all". One question I found generated interesting responses was "How many records has Beyonce sold?" - which gave a good opportunity to explore estimation. Another One Direction question: What is the name of the band member who is last in alphabetic order?"  Again - it's easy, but it gets some mathematical thinking happening.
  • Make the maths category questions easy at the start You want students to engage with the maths categories. I always start with easy questions - if you make them too hard, students will turn off - it's not a game any more. I save the harder questions for the 800 and 1000 point questions. I make the end-game question a more challenging - but doable - math question on the current topic.

The Quiz editor in Stu's Quiz Boxes.
 I find I can reuse the quizzes across many grade levels,
 making this an efficient use of lesson preparation time.

Playing the game
This game is so much fun, and the students get so excited, it's essential to have a management strategy.
  • Every group gets a chance to answer the question. This is perhaps the biggest change I make to playing the game: I don't have a "first-answer-wins" approach. In a classroom of 30 students, it's impossible to work out who gave the first answer and the noise levels are impossible if you go this way. Instead every group has a mini whiteboard to write their answer (you could use just a sheet of paper).  Once I see a group has a quality answer (doesn't have to be correct - just interesting), I yell "2 minutes" and give all the other groups time to complete. When I call "time up", we look at all the answers and every group that has a correct answer gets the points.
  • Encourage group checking of answers. As the questions get harder and are worth more points, I ask each group to ensure everyone agrees on the answer before presenting it. This gives the group a chance to teach the content to each other. It's wonderful to see students try to convince each other their answer to a maths question is correct.
  • Noise level management. This is hard because it's so exciting. Never have you seen a class so interested in knowing what 8% of $200 is! As the noise level rises you'll have to calm the class down.
  • Prizes. I confess to motivating with a very small chocolate prize. I give one to every student at the end and don't buy into "but we won...." discussions - as far as I'm concerned everyone is a winner if they participated :-)  Waving the packet at the start of the game gets their attention - but it's amazing how quickly the students forget about the chocolate and become obsessed with winning game points.

Special thanks to Stu Hasic who so kindly donated Quiz Boxes to the education community.  I highly recommend you try Quiz Boxes with your classes. And over time you will develop a bank of quizzes which you can share with other teachers in your faculty - or maybe even at Stu's website.

Here's what you need:
  • A data projector (or an Interactive White Board)
  • A copy of Quiz Boxes - free download from Stu's web site
  • A pre-prepared quiz. It can take a good hour to design a quiz, but you will find you can reuse quizzes across many year levels and they stay current for several years.  You might like to challenge your class to design quiz questions for a category - although this will take some time and planning.
  • Students arranged in groups - maximum six groups for Quiz Boxes.
  • Mini-whiteboards OR a pad of paper per group.
  • Solid walls between you and the classroom next door. Close your windows :-)