Using Blended Learning to Strengthen Math Skills
This effective method allows students to be flexible, develop critical thinking, and use math creatively outside of direct instruction.
What if technology could aid our abilities to teach better in the mathematics classroom? What if stations fit the needs of digitally advanced new century learners? Blended learning isn’t new, but it’s sometimes inconsistent in math classrooms. There is growing evidence that blended learning supports students' critical thinking skills.
However, small group instruction, computer time, and independent work are sometimes treated as three different entities rather than as a coherent unit to aid students’ mathematics knowledge. And I wonder how we might integrate culturally responsive teaching using stations to help students’ procedural skills and fluency, conceptual understanding, and application while building critical-thinking abilities.
The Memphis school system has pushed for blended learning activities that go beyond sending students to online platforms without significant and focused intervention. There are three phases that help me process how to facilitate blended learning in the elementary math classroom.
Phase 1: The Planning Process
Based on exit tickets and students’ classwork and discussions about math on prior days, I decide what my students need to accomplish by the conclusion of class. If they need more help grasping multi-digit subtraction, for example, I take an equity-centered approach and construct my blended learning stations around this issue.
Planning reduces teachers’ stress since it promotes confidence in the execution of all the moving parts of blending learning. You can complete math tasks, acquire the necessary resources and math tools, and design differentiated work days or weeks before delivery.
I find the planning process to be engaging, meaningful work that’s culturally responsive and student-centered—not busy work. When I work with kids in small groups, it’s critical that the other students who aren’t at my table feel equipped to do exercises independently. It’s difficult for blended learning to operate well if activities are dull, are not clearly targeted at a skill students need to master, or can’t be applied in a real-world context.
Phase 2: Implementation
My district pushes for blended learning in three stations: the teacher-led station, the offline station, and the online station. At my previous school, blended learning occurred at least once a week on Fridays, but gradually increased to twice a week if time was available.
While we are engaged in blended learning, I typically display the agenda on the board (with written directions) for students, school administrators, and visitors as a reminder of what to expect at each station.
Teacher-Led Station: Teachers lead small groups where students (in groups of up to four) can work on a specific math skill with immediate feedback and with space to engage in productive struggle.
In the teacher-led station, there are manipulatives, whiteboards, markers, and an easel behind me with an anchor chart paper that outlines an exemplar of the work when needed. I like to treat this time as a math conversation based on data that I’ve collected throughout the week. I ask students, “What do you think?”, “Can you explain your model for me?”, “How can you check if your answer is correct?” “What would happen if I changed the units, how would your answer change?”
Asking these questions help me gauge my students’ understanding of the concepts beyond correct or incorrect answers. As math teacher Marilyn Burns recently said at the 2022 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference, “Correct answers are only the beginning. How students reason is the end goal.”
Offline Station: Students work independently and/or in small groups to complete a math task or set of problems. The number of students in the small group will vary according to your class size, but can range from four to eight students. Make any adjustments as needed in order to keep things manageable.
In the offline station, enrichment and intervention are combined. A mixed group of students work independently for a specific length of time on a skill that will later help them solve the math tasks as a group. I analyze their completed work after class. For one activity last year, I drew on my students’ interests in animals and discovery through imagination when we pretended that a new fish species was discovered in the Mississippi River in Memphis.
Instead of working with real fish, due to affordability and logistics, students measured realistic fish cutouts. Students used a note catcher (data recording sheet) and worked at tables to put the fish lengths in a line plot. They measured fish with a ruler or number line at their discretion. They had toothpicks, markers, notecards, and tape to make line plots across their tables.
Online Station: Students work independently on the computer through online math activities and interventions.
Wakelet is a helpful online station planning tool that lets students experience self-paced learning. In Wakelet, I type and record instructions and provide math-related graphics, Spanish translations, and videos so that every kid can access information in ways that work for them.
When setting up my online station in Wakelet, I often provide a link to Gimkit, an online learning gameshow (there’s a free option and a paid subscription). I also push myself to be culturally responsive by encouraging all students to share their perspective by typing or speaking about how they would answer a math problem on Flip.
Last year, my students explored the globe through math by arranging a trip to Memphis or anywhere on a budget, including transportation, food, and entertainment. Many of my international students “visited” their home countries, which helped me connect with them as mathematicians. They also shared their calculations and thought processes with others at the station to learn about their classmates’ ways of thinking and personal backgrounds.
I find that the three stations run smoothly with established routines, with students spending about 15–25 minutes per station. Before implementation, students practice traveling to each station, working independently and collaboratively, finding materials, and submitting work. If time permits, they stay at a station that fulfills their individual mathematical needs or rotate after I ring a bell.
A class timekeeper gives students five minutes to clean up and turn in work before rotating. While students are at the online and offline stations, I sometimes briefly check on their progress while students are finishing up work at my teacher-led station.
Phase 3: Reflection
Blended learning is rarely perfect and can always be improved to meet students where they are. I ask myself, “What went wrong, what went right, and what can I change?” This reflection includes data analysis of online and offline student work, listening to or reading Flipgrid responses, and documenting student conversations on a data tracker to determine next steps for each student for the next lesson or blended learning day.
Overall, blended learning can improve elementary math student outcomes. The most important aspect of this method is to consider what engages, helps, and grows students’ mathematical understanding.