Concept Application/Impact of Attention, Memory, and Higher Order Cognition

An important goal of math instruction is for students to see the relevance of math concepts to everyday life. A student’s progression from a basic understanding of a concept to a particular level of competency in applying that concept in real-life situations is strongly influenced by abilities in attention, memory and higher order thinking.

Attention skills help students maintain a steady focus upon the details of math concepts, as they link new concepts to what they already know about math. Memory skills help students to store and retrieve known concepts, and to elaborate on new concepts in their minds. Applying new concepts depends not only on memorization skills (for example, memorizing attributes of the concept of volume), but also upon the ability to think about these concepts in relation to real-life situations (e.g., applying the concept of volume in science class or in the kitchen at home).

Here are some strategies to help students develop and practice the application of math concepts to everyday life.

Helpful Hints

  • When teaching basic concepts, let students work with concrete objects in the classroom. For example, let students explore number concepts by adding and subtracting objects in the room (e.g., finding the number four by adding the legs on two desks, by subtracting crayons from the box, etc.).  
  • When introducing broad concepts, give students opportunities to connect these concepts to prior experience and relevant situations. For example, reinforce measurement concepts by having students compare the height of classmates, or the weight of their book bags when empty and full. Have students first estimate measurements (e.g., how many books the bag can hold, how much taller John is than Matt); then solve exact measurements.  
  • Identify topics that would be of interest to your students, such as building a skateboard ramp, being a market researcher, etc., and explore the mathematical relationships or concepts related to these topics.  
  • Help students learn to apply math concepts to new situations. Provide specific instructions (and ongoing prompting) that describe what to look for, and the steps to follow when applying each concept. For example, teach students to use the concept of percent to examine the amount of water in the human body, the price of a jacket on sale at the mall, the portion of students who have pets, the percentage of allowance spent on entertainment, etc.  
  • Have students identify daily situations where they use math skills, for example, when reading bus schedules, filling out catalog order forms, etc.  
  • Integrate historical information and events into your discussions to connect math concepts to everyday life. For example, have students explore how the needs of the times prompted people to create or define math concepts and ideas, e.g., the need to build the pyramids, the desire to navigate the ocean, etc. Have students write a biographical portrait about a person to whom math was important, e.g., Pythagoras and his extension of the Pythagorean theorem, Florence Nightingale and her innovative use of statistics, or Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and the use of math in economics.