Enhancing Learning Through Small Group Math Instruction: Effective Strategies and Lesson Planning
We spoke with a principal and an interventionist to understand their tips for successful small group math instruction and how students and teachers can benefit.
Personalization and differentiation are critical in the classroom today, especially as schools work to overcome the math learning gap widened by the pandemic.
After all, it’s unrealistic to expect every student to be at the same level academically at the same time, just like it’s unrealistic to expect every student to learn the same way or have the same life experiences to contextualize the material. More individualized instruction allows educators to better support the unique needs of each student, as well as an opportunity to better observe the students to understand not only what they might be missing, but why they might be missing it.
But, of course, educators are also working with limited time with which to provide this more one-to-one instruction. That’s where – done correctly – targeted, small group math instruction can be an invaluable tool for closing these learning gaps efficiently. We talked to former Principal Vanessa Williams Johnson of the BlueStreak Math team and Jennifer Baygood, interventionist and MTSS lead with Chicago Public Schools, to learn more about the benefits of small group instruction and tips for implementing the practice in your school or classroom.
What is targeted small group math instruction?
Small group math instruction is the practice of pulling groups of 2-6 students for more direct, differentiated instruction, guidance, and feedback. It is often practiced as a form of Tier 2 intervention in schools.
“Tier 2 interventions and small group instruction allow students to catch up,” says Williams Johnson, who served as a Chicago Public Schools principal and oversaw interventions for her school. “It helps them better grasp the on-grade-level work so they are not continuously falling behind, because that's really when the gap widens. That's the primary benefit.”
Targeted, small group instruction can take place during many times of day: before school, after school, and during interventions periods. Williams Johnson explains a few ways this small group math instruction may be integrated into the school day:
“When intervention takes place it will vary from school to school,” Williams Johnson says. “Some districts have specific time set aside for intervention called an intervention hour, and it might be inclusive of multiple subjects. It could also be during the math block when other students are working autonomously. And then some schools or districts have specific days for intervention or small group work.”
Why are Tier 2 intervention and small group instruction so beneficial in grade school math?
- Leverage differentiated instruction: In small groups, teachers can provide individualized attention to students, addressing their specific learning needs and challenges. This tailored approach ensures that each student receives the support they require, leading to a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.
- Provide immediate feedback: Small groups offer an opportunity for educators to provide more immediate feedback, correcting misconceptions and guiding students in real time. This instant feedback loop helps students to grasp concepts more quickly and accurately, leading to a greater sense of accomplishment and motivation.
- Prevent academic gaps: By providing targeted instruction and support, educators help these students stay on track with grade-level expectations, reducing the likelihood of long-term academic difficulties and helping to close the gap between struggling students and their peers.
- Increase participation & engagement: Students are more likely to participate actively in discussions and activities in smaller groups. They may feel more comfortable asking questions and sharing their thoughts, leading to a more interactive and engaging learning environment. “In the small groups, most students are just more focused, more intentional, and they're able to retain better,” says Baygood.
- Foster peer collaboration: Similarly, small group instruction encourages peer collaboration and cooperative learning. Students can work together, discuss problems, and explain concepts amongst themselves. This collaborative approach not only enhances their understanding but also improves communication and teamwork skills.
- Build confidence: Many educators talk not just about the learning gap in mathematics, but the confidence gap, as well. With more opportunities to progress and succeed in a small group environment, students' self-esteem and confidence often improve, as well, enhancing their attitude toward the subject matter and school as a whole. This confidence can also help motivate these students to take on increasingly challenging tasks.
How to Plan and Lead Small Group Math Instruction
1. Develop a method for identifying students in need of small group support.
The decision of who to pull for small group math instruction should be driven by data – ideally real-time data to provide support while concepts are fresh in students’ minds and to prevent them from falling further behind. Groupings should also be done with the intention of keeping each small group lesson focused on one very specific concept, strategy or skill. This makes it easier for teachers to plan the lessons (more on this in a moment), for students to grasp new ideas, and for progress to be assessed.
The question then becomes: what data should I analyze? How do I determine the cut-off point for which students do and do not need more individualized support? And how long will all of this analysis take?
At BlueStreak Math, we recommend automating this process wherever possible, for the sake of both consistency and efficiency. That’s why the BlueStreak digital solution offers a Grouping Tool that outlines which students are struggling with which strategies, with real-time data based on the student’s last 20 attempts in their in-platform practice. Educators can then pull this data on a daily or weekly basis to determine their intervention groups.
“It's really challenging for teachers to find the time to analyze the data,” Williams Johnson says. “And that's really what it takes: constantly analyzing the data to see where the students are, what the groups should be, and whether they should change by the week or by the day. That's why the real-time intervention tools like those included in BlueStreak's math fluency program are so great, because the teacher doesn't have to do all of this manually. The tool directs them to the right students and exactly where they need help.”
2. Maximize efficiency with scripted lesson plans or lesson plan templates.
We’re willing to bet you already have enough on your plate without putting together Tier 1 and Tier 2 lesson plans. This is where scripted small group lesson plans and lesson plan templates can be enormously useful, providing a turnkey solution with minimal to no prep work involved.
Sites like Teachers Pay Teachers offer PDFs for tracking and managing small group instruction. These can help streamline the process, from monitoring students involved in each small group to tracking which activities were done when. However, they still leave the lesson planning itself up to the teachers.
Tools like BlueStreak Math, on the other hand, provide turnkey small group math lesson plans for teachers and corresponding practice problems for students. Here’s how it works:
- BlueStreak’s Grouping Tool – part of the digital platform – provides intervention groupings based on which students’ are struggling with which strategies. These groupings are real-time, based on students’ most recent performance in the BlueStreak Math platform.
- These groupings then correspond to scripted lessons in BlueStreak’s Strategy Log workbooks. After pulling these sets of students for small group instruction, teachers and interventionists talk them through the provided lessons to clear up any misconceptions and answer student questions as needed.
- From there, students complete practice problems to reinforce the learning and, ultimately, wrap up the small group math instruction time with Reflection and Goal-Setting pages within the workbooks.
3. Have a strategy for classroom management.
The purpose of small group instruction is to provide focused attention to students most in need of additional support. If your targeted small group instruction takes place during the math block, all the planning in the world won’t get you anywhere if the other students are loud, distracted, or otherwise generally requiring your attention while you try to lead the small group instruction.
The challenge is finding activities for these students that both keeps them occupied and supports their own learning. This is where tools like BlueStreak Math can be exceptionally helpful. BlueStreak not only provides tools for teachers and students in the small group, but the digital platform allows students to learn and practice completely autonomously, while its adaptive engine ensures they’re learning at their pace, even without your direct supervision and guidance.
“The teachers love the various games and the interactions they prompt students to have with one another,” Baygood says. “But the kids don't see if one is doing addition and one is doing multiplication, so they get really excited competing with each other.”
While this gamification can help students stay locked-in and learn more autonomously, if you’re worried the competition might lead to a noisier classroom environment during small group instruction, you can always turn off multiplayer game modes temporarily.
4. Evaluate the process, not just the end results.
Understanding the process a student goes through to solve a problem can allow teachers to identify misconceptions or errors in that student's thinking. By analyzing the steps the student takes, educators can pinpoint specific areas of misunderstanding and address them directly and in real time.
Additionally, observing this process allows educators to better determine what is an issue of lack of understanding and what is an issue of speed and automaticity, and address the issue appropriately and effectively.
“Do an item analysis or watch the student behaviors during the exercises to see where they're struggling. You need to get to the root of WHY they're not answering questions correctly,” Williams Johnson says. “It’s about more than whether a student passes or fails, or what problems they got right or wrong. You can know that a student consistently does not pass, but you need to know if maybe they're getting step one done correctly but not getting step 2, because that’s really where they need support.”
5. Use a Gradual Release model or “scaffolded instruction” to guide learning and foster independence.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) mode is an instructional framework consisting of four stages:
- I do (modeling)
- We do (guided practice)
- You do together (collaborative practice)
- I do (independent practice)
It provides a structured progression to enhance student confidence and competence, where students gradually move from more support to more independence. By gradually releasing responsibility, the model empowers students to become independent learners, capable of applying their knowledge and skills in various contexts.
6. Provide opportunities for reflection and goal setting.
Reflection and goal setting are key components in deliberate practice, a learning approach proven to be particularly effective in elementary math. These activities help concretize learnings for long-term memory and deeper understanding.
Reflection encourages metacognition, which is the ability to think about one's own thinking. When students reflect on their learning experiences, they gain insights into their thought processes, learning strategies, and areas of strength and weakness. This self-awareness enhances their overall cognitive abilities.
Consider ending small group instruction with these types of activities. Need a little inspiration?
Ready to transform your approach to small group math instruction?
BlueStreak Math allows schools to reap all the rewards of small group instruction with a fraction of the time investment by educators. The BlueStreak digital platform and its corresponding Strategy Log workbooks save educators time in three key areas:
- Identifying students for Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention and grouping them by skill or strategy in need of support.
- Providing turnkey, scripted small group lesson plans, practice pages, and reflection and goal-setting activities.
- Keeping classroom management minimal by allowing other students to learn autonomously in the digital platform while their peers participate in small group instruction.
Pilot BlueStreak Math and witness the remarkable difference it can make in bridging both the learning and confidence gap in math education.