How To Manage Small Group Math Projects and Still Teach ALL Of Your Students

Math projects are an engaging way to provide students with enrichment opportunities when they’re demonstrating mastery at the beginning of a math unit, and the rest of your class needs support and instruction for that unit. 

Providing your advanced learners with an enrichment project to deepen their learning rather than bogging them down with busy work will allow them to apply what they know in more real-world contexts while keeping them engaged and excited about the subject they excel in. 

Small group fractions math project focusing on flower growth.

It may feel overwhelming to have your advanced learners working on a project while you’re teaching your current math unit to the rest of your class. I used to shy away from providing these types of enrichment opportunities because I couldn’t wrap my head around the logistics of keeping tabs on students who were independently working on a project while I taught a mini-lesson and worked with small groups. I worried my advanced learners would feel lost, forgotten, or even worse, they’d slip away without actually getting much done.

Over the years, I found the courage to test out a few different structures and through trial and error found some routines that work like a charm to alleviate that stress and overwhelm you may be feeling when it comes to giving your advanced learners a differentiated project. Give these a try! 

Structuring Math Workshop for Small Group Project Based Learning

Flexibility is key when providing project based learning (PBL) as an option for a small group of learners. Let your students navigate Math Workshop in a way that feels most comfortable to them. 

Here are three questions to ask students as they learn how to build independence while working on an enrichment project:

  • Do they want to work on the project during the mini lesson and all the way through M.A.T.H. rotations without breaking their focus?
  • Do they like to participate in the mini lesson and then hop into project work once rotations start?
  • Do they want to pause their project work for another favorite part of Math Workshop like the games rotation or the technology rotation?

We want these advanced learners to stay engaged and stay passionate about the subject area they are excelling in and providing flexibility through these options fosters that engagement. 

Core Inspiration's math workshop rotation board with project based learning listed as a math center option

Keeping Tabs on Project Progress

When providing flexibility and choice, you also need to save your sanity and be able to track everything that’s going on in your classroom. This weekly schedule template helps you do just that. 

Individual project based learning planning sheet to hold enrichment students accountable when working independently on a PBL unit.

This form can be completed by students who are working on PBL at the beginning of each week. It helps students make a plan as they head into the week, map it out, and answer follow-up questions about their plan to boost accountability. 

These questions are focused on the project deadline, whether students feel they are on track to meet that deadline, how they know they’re making progress, and the exact parts of the project they plan to complete that week. 

Project Based Learning Student Conferences

In addition to using a tracking sheet like the one above, make a plan to routinely meet with your project based learning group once or twice a week to check in on goal setting, whether they’re on track to meet their deadline, and to ask if they have any questions about their project.

Your students working on project based learning will likely feel more empowered to focus independently when they know they have a scheduled weekly check-in meeting with you every few days. You will feel more at ease about focusing on the learners in your class who are working through the lessons and content of the math unit you’re teaching without an added layer of wondering whether or not your PBL group is on track. 

Core Inspiration's math project based learning teacher tracker showing record of who teacher has met with this week

Using Math Triads To Support Small Group Project Based Learning

If a student has a question about their project or is feeling stuck on a day when you aren’t scheduled to meet with your PBL group, have them use the math triad routine to find a solution. 

Tips For Creating Math Triads for Math Workshop - math small group work boosts students independence.

A math triad is a carefully-designed group of three students that work together to solve any problems that may arise during the course of Math Workshop each day. Math triads build student independence and resourcefulness rather than dependence on the teacher as the sole provider of answers. Make sure the students who are working on the enrichment project you have assigned are all part of the same triad(s).

Math Triads Routine

Math triads were designed with the “three before me” routine in mind. A student should ask three people to assist him/her before asking the teacher.

  1. First the student must ask themself by thinking long and hard about the question/problem, and use personal resources to find a solution.
  2. If a solution is not found, the student must collaborate with a classmate, and combine brainpower and resources to find a solution.
  3. If that classmate doesn’t have the resources to help, the student must collaborate with yet another classmate.
  4. Occasionally, the student still has no solution, and must turn to the teacher for guidance.

If students arrive at the fourth step, make sure to have a place where they can write their name to let you know they have run into a problem and need your assistance when you have a moment to spare. 

Core Inspiration math triads three before me reminder poster with spot for students to meet with the teacher as needed

Take time to establish your expectations for what students should do as they wait for you to check in with them. Should they move on to the next part of the project? Should they work on another activity? Should they do anything to prepare so your meeting time with them is more efficient?

Using Small Group Project Based Learning In Your Classroom

If you are ready to engage your advanced learners in a project based learning enrichment experience for your next unit, give these tips a try! 

To make your life even easier, purchase one of these carefully-crafted project based learning guides that will walk your students through every step of their enrichment project. The format of these project guides is so detailed, your students will feel like they have their own personal guide walking them through their project based learning experience each day! 

You are going to love the feeling of knowing your advanced students are having fun while extending their learning while you help the rest of your class master the standards for your next unit!



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I’m Laura Santos

I’ve been an elementary teacher for ten years, and love sharing tips and resources that make differentiated learning more manageable for you. Thank you for visiting.

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