Keeping Everyone Moving (At Their Own Pace)

by Melissa Braaten

One of the hallmarks of the adult education classroom is the need to differentiate instruction to a spectrum of learners. I have the good fortune to work in a program with the capacity to level students for math and reading separately; many adult education teachers find they are teaching a math class of learners who were placed based on their reading level, which means the spread of mathematical ability is extremely wide. Even in my slightly more homogenous classroom, I am faced with a wide range of processing speeds, which means that while some learners are still sweating through the first problem, others are done and waiting for the next challenge. This situation, if not well handled, leads to a few pitfalls that all adult education teachers know well:

  • The students who work quickly lose time on task if they have to wait for the next activity.
  • The students who finish quickly are also at risk of getting bored and losing focus, which often leads to side conversations or other distracting behavior.
  • On the other hand, students who require more time may feel perpetually rushed and may develop anxiety or become discouraged over their inability to finish tasks.
  • These students may also find it harder to participate in the class, since they have not had enough time to prepare an adequate response.

While there is no magic fix to this perpetual challenge, I have a few favorite strategies for differentiating instruction in the math classroom.

Mini Whiteboards

A more colorful version of the old classroom slate, many teachers have discovered that a classroom set of mini whiteboards can be an incredibly useful teaching tool. I start every math class with a warm up, which I require students to answer on their mini whiteboard. The advantage of this is that students who finish quickly can show me their work and get instant feedback, without verbalizing their answer out loud. I can nod to them if it looks good, and pose a follow up question for them to work on, while the other students continue with the warm up undisturbed. In addition, if a student’s work is particularly clear or demonstrates a different strategy for solving the problem, the whiteboard can be displayed for others to see. For activities where answers can vary widely, such as number of the day, whiteboards can be displayed around the room so that students can see many different representations and comment on them—while the authors have the safety of anonymity.

Mini whiteboards also work great for review, allowing me to check a roomful of students’ work from the front of the room. Everyone gets to show their whiteboard when they are ready, and since no answers have been said out loud, everyone can participate.

Tiny Sheets

This strategy, which I have nicknamed “tiny sheets,” came from the pedagogical wisdom of Landmark School in Beverly, MA, which specializes in K-12 students with language-based learning disabilities. One of their teaching principles is to create opportunities for success. Students with slower processing speeds often experience failure in the math classroom when they are unable to complete worksheets and other activities before the class moves on. A Landmark strategy is to take worksheets and…chop them up. Literally. Instead of a worksheet with 8 problems, you chop the page into 8 tiny sheets with one problem each.

The advantage of this is that you can provide each table with a stack of tiny sheets and frame the task as practice for a certain amount of time, rather than the completion of a certain number of problems. For example, you can say, “We are going to practice x for 10 minutes” and students work on the tiny sheets and complete whatever they can in that amount of time. One student may complete two tiny sheets, and another may do fifteen, but both students can successfully complete the task.

A couple of variations that also work well with tiny sheets:

  • problems with different levels of difficulty can be printed on different colors, allowing students to choose their level of challenge
  • leftover tiny sheets can be made available to students to take home as extra practice or quiz review
  • students can correct each other’s tiny sheets – great practice on both sides

If I want students to hand in their tiny sheets, I ask them to staple the pile together and to put their name on the front.

Sign Up Sheets

When my class is working on longer, more involved problems requiring problem solving, I want to make sure that the students who work quickly still work carefully and check their work, and that the students who may be shyer or need more time will have a chance to present their thinking. I sometimes manage this by offering a sheet where students can sign up for a problem they want to present. This may take place in the same class, or possibly the next, but I find that committing to presenting a problem ahead of time often encourages students to reexamine and clarify their thinking. In addition, each student can only sign up for one problem, so there are always more available for more reserved students. I have also found that the students listen more carefully to each other and I am able to talk less, since the structure and turn taking for sharing answers is already in place before we begin.

These are just a few strategies I have encountered and tested in my own classroom. In my experience teaching adult numeracy, good classroom management strategies are as valuable as a good curriculum: they decrease frustration, increase time on task, and help learners to create a more interdependent classroom environment. Most students are good at valuing and supporting each other’s learning when they do not have to compete for the teacher’s attention to get their needs met.

Melissa Braaten Melissa Braaten is an adult education instructor at St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children in Dorchester, MA. Melissa has taught ASE and pre-ASE math and reading, as well as ABE writing, computer skills, and health classes. Melissa also is a training and curriculum development specialist for the SABES PD Center for Mathematics and Adult Numeracy at TERC.


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