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What Makes Learning Math Fun?

In the midst of writing lesson plans, my students were asked to respond to the "big" question: What does it mean to make mathematical learning fun?

In addition to personally reflecting/responding to the question, they posed the question to six university students (no math majors), looking for any insights/common responses.

Consider (and learn from) these selected responses:

  • "I got to rap about sine, cosine, etc. in high school..." (English major)
  • "I loved when we would do multiplication wheels in 2nd and 3rd grade. Making a competition out of it encouraged me to study so I could win, not necessarily to just get a good grade or be good at math. the satisfaction of competition...." (Speech/Hearing major)
  • "...likes it when the mathematics is put in context, in applicable way. But....it would be impossible to make it fun." (Spanish major)
  • "Honestly, I can't say I have had an experience when I thought math was fun. In high school I barely made it through and I hated my math teachers. I only made it to algebra. I would imagine it would be more fun if it was easier." (undeclared community college student)
  • "Well, I have always been pretty good at math... I know I liked it. I am having a hard time thinking of whether I thought it was fun though. I guess I enjoyed it because I was good at it. Isn't that usually the case? People tend to enjoy things they are good at...." (Electrical Engineering major)
  • "Pythagorean Theorem...peering back into the origins of modern mathematics." (Physics major)
  • "I don't normally put math and fun in the same sentence but I guess it can be fun since it is like a puzzle. It's up to you to get all your puzzle pieces (equations, symbols, and numbers, etc.) to work together and find a solution." (English major)
  • "...when you give the learners the encouragement and confidence that they can do math, and celebrate when they accomplish the learning...." (Business major)
  • "...means making everything a puzzle. Having students have the aha moment and giving them something they can hang on to and build off of." (Physics Ed major)
  • "...being able to apply it to real life. How does knowing this enable me to be successful in my life? And if I must learn it and it's not applicable to real life, then I suppose some kind of visual with an elephant, a kangaroo, and an antelope would be acceptable." (Business major)
  • "...when I find deep connections between seemingly disparate fields. Also, all the beauty I perceive in math all the time, be it a beautiful proof or a pleasing picture, etc." (Math/Economics major)
  • "...when she gets to use her hands....using manipulatives and having tangible experiences with mathematics...being able to talk with peers about the mathematical concepts they are learning..." (Elementary Education major)
  • "Math isn't fun. Personally I like math, but it's by no means fun...." (Engineering major)
  • Unlike an English essay I can't B.S. my way through it." (Computer Science major)
  • I really like when my teacher is enthusiastic, if they are having fun that helps me have fun." (Psychology/Sociology major)
  • "I don't know if you can make math fun...math sucks. But I really appreciate a thorough explanation so I can understand it. I hate all those stupid activities teachers try and give you, thinking that you're gonna have fun. I'm not a hands-on learner. I like to see problems worked out so I can watch how its done." (Fashion Merchandising major)
Sorry for including so many responses, but each was chosen from a larger number because it added a new element to consider. Wouldn't it be a "fun" challenge to have all of these students in a common class?

So, what is your answer as to what makes learning math fun? Is it the mathematics itself that is fun….or the way the learning experiences are orchestrated that makes mathematical learning fun?

Could “unfun” math be learned in a fun way? And, could “fun” math be learned in a “unfun” way…? Plus, what are examples of "fun" math and "unfun" math?