What Is a Mathematically Rich Task?

Stage: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5
Article by Steve Hewson

Published December 2011,February 2011.

Rich tasks open up mathematics. They transform the subject from a collection of memorised procedures and facts into a living, connected whole. Rich tasks allow the learner to 'get inside' the mathematics. The resulting learning process is far more interesting, engaging and powerful; it is also far more likely to lead to a lasting assimilation of the material for use in both further mathematical study and the wider context of applications.

Current research evidence indicates that students who are given opportunities to work on their problem solving skills enjoy the subject more, are more confident and are more likely to continue studying mathematics, or mathematically related subjects, beyond the age of 16. Most importantly to some, there is also evidence that they do at least as well in standard tests such as GCSEs and A-levels.

Rich tasks can enable students to work mathematically by allowing them to:
  • Step into activities even when the route to a solution is initially unclear
  • Get started and explore because the tasks are accessible to pupils of wide ranging abilities
  • Pose as well as solve problems, make conjectures
  • Work at a range of levels
  • Extend knowledge or apply knowledge in new contexts
  • Work successfully when using different methods
  • Broaden their problem-solving skills
  • Deepen and broaden mathematical content knowledge
  • See and make sense of underlying principles or make connections between different areas of mathematics
  • Work within include intriguing contexts
  • Observe other people being mathematical or see the role of mathematics within cultural settings
The NRICH website is full of freely available rich tasks and advice on how to use them.

To read more, please see our article for teachers Rich Tasks and Contexts or read some teaching suggestions for rich tasks.