Self-Paced Learning in Middle School Math

Implementing self-paced learning helped an eighth-grade algebra teacher scaffold and differentiate instruction, creating a student-centered class.

May 24, 2022
Inside Creative House / iStock

This school year, I’ve been striving to have a fully self-paced classroom for my eighth-grade math students, as data from initial assessments was noticeably lower than in years past. However, it’s going to take some time to wean students away from a traditional, teacher-driven format. Taking into account the challenges of the last two years, it occurred to me that there need to be some changes for individual student success.

With the requirement to teach the Algebra 1 standards, I felt compelled to scaffold where there were noticeable gaps in each student’s math skills, concepts, and critical thinking. This is where the self-paced format comes into play. The class blends traditional and self-paced formats, slowly turning away from the traditional structure.

The Algebra 1 class in middle school allows for this fluidity. Our district structure gives all eighth-grade students the opportunity to pass Algebra 1 with high school credit. If a student passes, they move to Geometry. If not, they have the opportunity to take Algebra 1 again as freshmen, already having been exposed to algebraic foundational skills.

To best achieve this lofty goal, I felt we needed a supplemental anchor for a couple of reasons. First, not all students learn the same way. Some need the material mentioned once and they’re set. Others need rigor and drills. Supplemental lessons will help provide that with help, practice problems, etc.

A Way to Differentiate 

The other reason for supplementation is differentiation. It opens other voices for students to learn from outside of just my own. It generates more of a facilitator role on my part rather than being the sole proprietor of education. For the sake of immediacy, I chose the Khan Academy Algebra 1 course for each individual student to master.

If students need help when I’m not available, they have a way to find the answer. Additionally, they each have a dynamic learning tool in their Chromebook due to our school district’s 1:1 initiative. Students also have other sources available via the class’s learning management system. When assessment time comes, students meet with me, we go over what they achieved, and I assign a formative assessment virtually. This enables immediate feedback on their content knowledge.

For best practice, monitoring this self-paced portion of the class requires some checks and balances. To facilitate this, I implemented student meetings—quick constructive meetings that included simple checkpoints (or what the traditional class would call bell-ringer quizzes). Meetings end with progress monitoring through grading the checkpoint together, reviewing topics mastered through formative assessments, and assigning their next challenge.

To add some friendly competition into this classroom initiative, I made a visible line graph of progress for all to see. For privacy, rather than have students write their name, I gave each student a different token to use as a measuring placeholder so they could track their current progress on our classroom’s mastery graph. Students update their token location at the end of every week. Each student can stack their progress up against their classmates’.

Filling the missing gaps for students’ mathematical thinking is the motive for the self-paced time frame. During conferences, my students and I discuss the gaps they need to fill for their learning to accelerate. For example, we recently addressed the topic of writing linear equations in standard form, which requires students to comprehend the differences between greatest common factor and least common multiple. A student was having difficulty understanding the process, so I assigned them a task on a digital tool to complete by the next conference time. This allows for plugging gaps for some, while the others continue with their Algebra 1 mastery.

Small virtual assessments give the teacher (and the student) immediate results in terms of comprehension. With a feed-forward approach, my students and I can identify the missing concepts and attack them through remediated lessons. These remediated lessons are not through any math anchor, but through the use of digital resources that provide math-focused supplementary material and a gamified environment.

These virtual assessment tools can be beneficial for keeping students engaged in the mathematics curriculum. Overall, I find my students enjoying class because they don’t have a rote day-to-day. Instead, it’s “What can I (as an individual) learn today, and how am I going to learn it?” With each day, students are finding themselves in a less-structured, high-expectation environment. Flexible seating has started to be seen as a freedom. I want students to want to learn, and these students want to learn. Meeting them where they are is where it all began.

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Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School

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