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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Math Charades

Learners come in different packages.  Some of us are visual, others auditory and many kinesthetic.  Using visuals in the classroom, having students discuss their problem solving strategies, and using manipulatives are common methodologies used to meet the needs of different learning styles. Add to this, we know that engagement is a crucial component in learning.  Getting students to tune into math is crucial for learning, but not always the easiest to accomplish,especially in the age of the Internet and gaming.

Brain research tells us that there are different types of memory.  Understanding these makes a difference in effectively planning instruction that leads to the recall of learning.  Memorizing multiplication so that it is readily usable relies on reflexive memory.  Repetition of these facts leads to quick recall.  Episodic memory is a map of experiences, which is why I like to change seating assignments with each unit of content.  It is helpful to refer to an experience and where you were when you learned a skill to assist in recall.  Remember when we worked on the slope of a line?  Students can think back to that segment of math class related to where they were seated and the group they were working with to help trigger recall. 

Eric Jensen in his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind (Jensen, 2005), discusses the four types of memory to include episodic, reflexive, semantic (word memory) and procedural.  We tend to use semantic memory most heavily in education, though research tells us it has limited effectiveness unless strategies are used to facilitate the transfer from short to long-term memory.  Chunking content,discussing text, and making associations all improve students’ abilities to recall content from semantic memory.

Procedural memory, that of movement or habits, requires little intrinsic motivation compared to semantic memory, and results in greater mapping of the memory in the brain as the body and brain are both involved in the storage of the information. How do we make the most of procedural memory in the math classroom?  Let’s ponder the fun of using charades.

Playing charades centers on the use of gestures to act out words, titles or phrases.  Usually, one person draws a card that tells them what they need to get their team to guess.  As you make motions to explain the words, your team members are trying to guess what you mean.  No spoken words allowed.  Sometimes you try to get your team to guess one word at a time, and other instances lend themselves to acting out the entire answer at once. 

Think about using charades in math.  In geometry, students can act out acute and obtuse angles, reflections, rotations, terms related to circles, or parallel and perpendicular lines. The list goes on and on. Visualize your students acting out the vocabulary and trying to have their peers guess the word or concept. Functions lend themselves to charades.  Given a parent function, act out the transformation.  Students begin by modeling the parent function with their arms and then move two steps to the right, or bring their arms closer together to show how the graph would change.  Talk about engagement. 

One recommendation for playing charades to learn transformations of functions is to progress through stages.  Begin by giving students a graph of the function to act out.  Their peers must guess the function.  Then move on to giving them the function, such as f(x-2) allowing students to draw out the graph before acting it out. They would show f(x) with their arms and then move their entire body to model the shift for -2.  At the final stage, encourage students to visualize the graph in their mind and act it out without needing to sketch it first. Allow students to make their own modifications as they learn.  Some students may not need to make a quick sketch before acting out the transformation, though others will.  Students (especially boys) enjoy competition,which will increase engagement. Make sure to monitor the game well enough to assess whether they are getting the math correct and not just acting kooky and having fun.  Your students will be your best allies in checking for understanding, as they monitor the team they play against for correct answers.

The first time you play charades with a class, it helps to begin by reviewing the rules and having the whole class participate in a few rounds.  Then break the class into smaller groups, four against four works well. 

Teacher preparation time for charades is quite minimal.  It takes very little time to create the cards of the words or problems you want your students to act out.    Depending on your learning goal and you students, have them create the cards by reviewing their notes and assignments.  All you need are index cards, or even paper torn into pieces.  (Just make sure the other students cannot see through the paper and read what they are trying to guess.)

Charades brings together the mind and the body in learning math, providing multiple pathways for recall.  And, it is just plain fun.  Be prepared for some arm movement and wiggling when your students take their next exam, as they “work out” their problems, recalling what they learned.


Anne Douglas is Dean of Instruction for Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center, a comprehensive high school in Houston, TX.

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