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5 Math Strategies for Struggling Students

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Helping students who struggle with math is my passion. I became a math teacher not because of my love for mathematics, but because as a tutor I noticed math was the class that was keeping my historically underserved students from graduating from high school. And that passion still drives me in my client work as an independent math interventionist today.

So what are the key strategies and interventions that helped me achieve classroom success and have helped literally thousands of other math teachers I work with achieve success? Keep reading.

#1) Build positive classroom culture and community

You cannot begin implementing math instructional strategies without first building a welcoming and positive community in your math intervention classroom, or any math class for that matter. If you have students repeating math, students with IEPs, or just students who struggle with math, you cannot skip this step. My favorite way to do this is by making sure I’ve given students an opportunity to share about their math pasts with me and their peers in an activity I call a Mathography. It’s a math biography, Mathography, where students share about their experiences from Kindergarten until now. You can find the Mathography assignment and other classroom culture building activities in my Math Classroom Culture Activity Bundle.

#2) Get all students talking

Once students feel known and seen in your classroom, it’s time they are heard. But getting students who struggle with math to participate and talk can feel like pulling teeth. My best advice is to ask students questions with multiple correct answers. This will give them the confidence to participate because the likelihood they are wrong is much lower than answering questions with just one correct answer. More than one correct answer in math?! Yes! I've put SIX of my favorite math engagement strategies together in one online workshop that will show you how to facilitate these strategies and get students talking. Check out the Math Engagement Workshop by clicking here.

#3) Make participation mandatory

I know cold calling and popsicle sticks get a bad rep in middle school and high school math classes, but in my opinion, they are essential as one of the math strategies for struggling students. I cannot say it better than my formative assessment guru, Dylan William, in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, “When teachers allow students to choose whether to participate or not - for example, by allowing them to raise their hands to show they have an answer - they are actually making the achievement gap worse, because those who are participating are getting smarter, while those avoiding engagement are forging the opportunities to increase their abilities (pg 81).” I know it’s scary to enact a cold calling strategy in your classroom, but if you’ve taken the time to do step #1 (build community) and step #2 (get students talking), cold calling is really no big deal. I encourage you to give it a try.

#4) Choose activities that engage all students

Once we’ve built the community, gotten students comfortable talking about mathematics, and engaged them in our lesson with high participation, our job is still not done. Students need an opportunity to practice math on their own or with their peers. Some of my favorite math intervention activities include using scavenger hunts and matching activities to help students practice the math. Scavenger hunts are great because they get students up and walking around our classroom (something so many of our students need, especially if we teach block periods). You can check out a bunch of scavenger hunts I’ve created by clicking here. Matching activities are great for students who struggle with math because they are self-checking and tactile. Students get to cut and paste and move math around to see how it matches. You can check out a bunch of matching activities I’ve created by clicking here.

#5) Assess fairly and equitably

You can do all of the steps above - you can have an amazing classroom community, provide awesome activities for you students to do during class, but if your students don’t feel you grade and assess them equitably and fairly, they are still going to give up in your math class. One of the most powerful math strategies for struggling students is equitable grading practices. This is something I’m incredibly passionate about and you can read more about my Effective Weekly Formative Assessment practices in this blog post. I have found rubric style grading (0-4) instead of the traditional 0-100% grading system to be incredibly helpful in ensuring equity in our grading practices and I encourage you to try the same. I share all the specifics of my grading system in my self-paced digital course for math teachers, Math Engagement Academy.

Did you like these tips?

Download my free Math Intervention Strategies guide. Click here to download your free guide. Gain access to 10 powerful and easy math intervention strategies specifically for 6-12th grade students.

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