How to Spark Joy & Individualize Students’ Needs with Guided Math

After boring both my students and myself with largely direct instruction math for a couple of years, I decided to try guided math. The results?  Increases in interest, one-on-one time, student initiative, and just plain joy in math learning.

Why Guided Math?

Most math programs are still set up in very traditional, teacher-centered constructs.  In the name of “offering support,” some even provide scripts!  This is typically followed by a barrage of worksheets. Then quiz tomorrow. Spiral review. Repeat.

Perhaps the monotony would be worthwhile if we all become mathematically literate adults, but this does not seem to be the case. As the National Center for Education Statistics keeps confirming in surveys conducted since the 1980’s, most Americans’ math skills remain lacking:

It’s time to look outside the box of traditional math education in order to foster life-long mathematical illiteracy!


_Untitled-1 via Flickr
_Untitled-1 via Flickr

One day, while complaining to another teacher about how I’d started hating the sound of my own voice, she introduced me to guided math.  What I found most intriguing:

  • The use of math “stations,” even for older students
  • The possibility of teaching lessons to small groups (4-8 students at a time)
  • Easier access to limited math manipulatives
  • More time for individual students to receive what they need most, whether it’s practice, instruction, or extension projects.

I started literally the next day.

And while it took longer than that to refine my approach, the beauty of guided math is you can easily adapt your school’s math program to its structure.


  • Time Needed: 1 to 1 ½ hours block
  • Breakdown:
    • Warm Up (first 5-15 minutes): Number Talks were one of my favorite ways to warm up (see this 3-page pdf for more details). At the end of warm-up time, write or project on the board any materials students may need to bring to each station.
    • Stations time (45-60 minutes): Students either rotate among or choose stations.
    • Wrap Up (last 5-15 minutes): Allow students to share any mathematical discoveries they noticed.
  • Stations Ideas:
    • Mini-lesson: This becomes a much more flexible idea than simply delivering lessons to the whole class. Some options:
      • The teacher works with small groups with math manipulatives, individual whiteboards, or other resources that are difficult to share/manage in larger groups.
      • Set up a computer with a video on the concept of the day from free video databases like LearnZillion or Khan Academy.  See a fantastic example of how a 4th grade colleague of mine uses her classroom blog to direct students to the video she selects (they have the additional convenience of checking out a mobile lab for the entire class during math).  The video option can be especially helpful on days that you need to have one-on-one math conferences with students.
    • Practice: Students try out concepts learned within the unit or the lesson of the day.
    • Fluency: Students work on math facts with flash cards, games, and/or websites like this one. I would sometimes have them record their progress on spreadsheets like this one.
    • Activity: Math board games, challenge projects, digital games from your class blog, or even blogging their math understanding using Educreations! Especially effective if you have parent volunteers available to help support!
    • Reflection: Students record their math thinking and processes in journals.
  • Choose a Structure: Rotations vs. Choice
    • Rotations: Divide your students into 3-5 groups (mixed or leveled based on benchmarks, quizzes, or daily formative assessments). Take the length of math block time, subtract 10 minutes for whole-class time at the beginning and end.
    • Choice: Right after Warm-Up, take a status of the class, asking your students which 1-2 stations they will be working on that day and why. You may choose to require all students to select the mini-lesson and/or practice stations each day before choice time, but that depends on your students’ needs!
    • Don’t be afraid to try out both options a couple of times! Ask students to notice successes and issues, and to be ready to report back during the wrap up or weekly class meeting.  Give them the opportunity to solve problems, and they will surprise you!
  • Model, Model, Model!

Troubleshooting Guide

  • Issue: Students become off-task at the game and/or fluency station
    • Possible Solution: Ask for parents to volunteer during guided math, either to help check off, help students with their practice, or even to bring a math game to share with groups!  You can also simply consider the location of your stations.
  • Issue: Students don’t get to every station every day
    • Possible Solution: That’s ok! If you’re doing rotations, just cut out one or two of the stations you’re using.  If you’re doing choice time, just have them choose 1 station a day beyond the mini-lesson and practice.
  • Issue: Instruction time not long enough
    • Possible Solution:  If you don’t find a LearnZillion or Khan Academy video you like, make a video of yourself teaching the concept!  Not only can it help you say things more succinctly and briefly, but your students can individually pause, rewind, and rewatch as many times as they need to.
  • Issue: Students don’t have enough time to finish worksheets in the practice portion.
    • Possible Solution: Become a more careful curator of your resources–sure, your manual assigns 38 problems to practice adding fractions, but is that really what your students need most today? Or do they really just need to practice the 4 problems that involve mixed numbers? Or maybe, they need you to design a challenge activity that gets them thinking more about the concepts behind fractions.  Never assume that the math textbook knows more about your students’ daily needs than you do!

Any other questions, tips, or experiences? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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