Keeping students engaged in math isn’t always easy, but differentiated instruction within a single class period can make a positive difference.
Changing things up doesn’t have to mean making significant changes. You can provide more time for practice and create classroom equity with small group activities.
Spending a portion of class as a whole, then breaking up for small group instruction, allows students to take what you’ve just taught them and apply it.
This is a way to make real-world connections with math, learn from each other, and get hands-on with a STEM-based project. When breaking students up into small groups, the possibilities are endless.
The benefits of small group instruction
Learning in small groups puts students at the center of the action.
Rather than act as passive observers watching someone else do math, students can go hands-on right from the very start.
Small group instruction enables students to learn from each other and gain confidence to be more vocal since they’re not addressing the entire class all at once while discussing math.
Small groups also ensure students are actually talking about math. This happens organically as they work through the activity itself since it’s dedicated time where they’re focused on the math they need to do to complete the activity.
From a teacher’s perspective, small groups allow you to move between groups and really see how students are doing with the skills they’re practicing, as well as quick, formative check-ins to monitor student understanding.
By setting detailed small-group guidelines, students will know what to do based on the guidelines and the objective or goal for the class period. Students will engage in the activity, leaving you the ability to answer questions, assess performance, and work one-on-one with groups as needed.
In this way, you can see if the entire class needs more time on a particular topic or if certain students are struggling that you can help individually at another time.
Creating Equity in the Classroom
Another key benefit that results from small groups is equitable education. This happens when every student can access the objectives taught through the activity.
How this happens may vary from class to class, but putting this as your primary objective can prove highly beneficial.
An appropriate strategy for ensuring equitable education revolves around group selection.
While you shouldn’t always separate students in the same way for small group work, you do need to consider what type of activity you’re doing and how to get the highest return out of your group project.
Making groups of students with varied comprehension levels may lead to a higher level of understanding for everyone in the class. Also, putting students who are excelling with ones who are struggling creates an environment of support and equity. It also lets students apply the various skill sets they bring to the table to make the objective attainable and benefit their entire group.
You can also create equity by thinking about group organization in other ways.
For example, when you really want your students to see a specific math objective through a real-world lens, consider grouping students by common interests, which they can then apply to the group activity.
You give every student access to the objective through a common theme that already sparks their interest.
The very construction of small group activities also creates equity in your classroom since changing how students learn automatically invites more students to the table.
Those who struggle in lectures but thrive when they can talk through objectives with their peers get a leg up in comprehension they may not have had otherwise.
Setting up norms for small group activities
While each activity you do in your class with small groups will have its own set of guidelines, it’s also a good idea to collaborate with your students on the norms of any group work.
This will ensure consistency in student behavior and free you up to work with the students rather than reminding them of what they’re supposed to be doing.
As this list begins to feel more final, make sure to write everything down. You can even have them hanging around the room as anchor charts.
The “approved” set of expectations should be something you put up each time (if not already hanging) you do small group work to refresh your students.
Don’t forget to include teacher expectations, so students can also contribute to how you’ll perform during these group activities.
Drive equitable education by involving students in the process
Allowing your students to be part of the conversation around establishing small group norms is essential.
Their direct feedback holds them more accountable for their actions.
When a student isn’t following the norms, you can say, “remember how we all decided as a class to listen to each other without interrupting?”
Rather than, “I really need you to listen to each other.”
This simple shift in phrasing puts the onus back on the student. You’re not telling them what to do but instead reminding them of what the class decided was appropriate behavior.
It also provides you with a chance to achieve equity in the classroom.
By treating this process like a Q&A session, you can collect all the perspectives within the class and then work collectively to polish up the expectations.
Ask open-ended questions of the students so that you can validate a single idea and continue to ask for others. Make sure you’re affirming the contributions of everyone both verbally and physically (smile, nod, etc.)
Types of questions to ask include:
- What makes it easier for you to learn?
- What distracts you from learning?
- What are some appropriate ways to disagree with another group member?
- What should some expected behaviors be for students?
- What role should I play as the teacher during group time?
- What are some behaviors we shouldn’t allow during group time?
- In what ways can we help our fellow group members succeed?
With the responses to questions like these, you’ll be able to come to a consensus, as a class, about proper and improper group behaviors and a defined list of expectations.
This norms document can always be edited and updated as the year progresses, but it should continue as a mainstay of small group activities to ensure equity.
The power of small groups in math education
Small group learning is a powerful classroom tool that allows for differentiated instruction and classroom equity.
It opens the door for rigorous practice that gets students hands-on with math and engaged with each other.
It ensures every student can access the skills they’re required to learn through a dynamic way to engage with objectives. This is whether they’re playing a game together in an app or using tactile resources for STEM-based learning.
It’s a way for students who are struggling to catch up, for students who are a little shy to feel confident, and for you to see where all your learners are at. It addresses many issues and gets everyone excited about math, and that's a win/win for everyone.