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3 ways to engage students in math with blended learning

By Nicole Krueger
February 28, 2017
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If you were a fly on the wall in Marissa Young’s fourth grade math class, it might seem like chaos at first.

Everybody’s doing something different. Some students sit on the floor watching videos while others build visual models at the table. Young moves between them with her Chromebook in hand, checking their progress and spending time with those who need extra help.

You might also notice how absorbed students are in what they’re doing. They’re directing their own learning, making choices and working at their own pace. When it’s time for recess, you might even hear the unthinkable. “I don’t want to go to recess. Can I stay in and do math?”

It’s shocking but true: Blended learning can boost student engagement that much. In one study, 59 percent of teachers who use blended learning say their students are more motivated to learn, and 32 percent say they take more ownership of their own learning. Three in four districts that implement blended learning cite increased student engagement as their primary goal.

Young was skeptical about blended learning at first, but she agreed to try it out for one unit. When she saw her students getting excited about math, she was sold.

“I fell in love with it,” says Young, winner of ISTE’s Emerging Leader Award last year. “Engagement was so high with all of my students, it was just amazing.”

Today, Young’s 1:1 classroom at Pontiac Elementary in South Carolina serves as a model for other teachers in the district. She also helps her colleagues plan their own blended learning units. Using a checklist model for blended learning, she builds lesson plans that address the ISTE Standards by:

  • Encouraging self-paced, self-directed learning.
  • Personalizing learning through student choice.
  • Fostering creativity and collaboration.

How it works

Young’s style of blended learning demands a lot of upfront planning. Teachers plan the entire unit in advance instead of constructing lessons as they go, and they often collaborate as a team to get the job done. Starting with the end goal — what students need to know — they work backward to develop each lesson in a checklist format. Lessons typically consist of:

1. Videos introducing the content. Depending on the size of the lesson, Young chooses two to four videos that deliver the necessary information. Most come from YouTube, although teachers can also make their own. For each lesson, she aims to:

  • Limit each video to five minutes or less.
  • Choose a variety of videos that address the content in different ways.
  • Include at least one entertaining, high-energy video, such as a rap. 

2. Quick check to assess learning. After watching the content, students must complete an online quick check before they can move on. This consists of four questions that give the teacher immediate feedback as to whether they understood the material. From there, Young might instruct students to revisit the videos, or she might work with them individually until they’ve mastered the content.

3. Independent practice to apply learning. Once they get the green light on their quick check, students choose from a handful of activities that allow them to work directly with the concepts they’ve learned. Options might include working through written problems, building models, creating drawings on the computer or using toothpicks to demonstrate angles. “I try to offer a variety of activities for the different learners we have so they can gravitate toward what they feel comfortable doing,” Young says.

Why it works

Once the unit begins, students tackle the checklists one at a time, working through them independently or in small groups. Each day when it’s time for math, they pick right up where they left off the day before.

“Everybody just goes to their own space,” Young says. “They love having ownership of what they’re working on without someone constantly saying, ‘You must do this.’ ”

In Young’s classroom, freedom is the fuel that drives student engagement. Flexible seating allows them to sit wherever they’re most comfortable and move from place to place depending on what they’re working on. The video format gives struggling students the option to revisit the information until they understand it, while fast learners are able to work as far ahead as they like.

“This opens the door so they know it’s OK if they’re not on the same lesson as everyone else,” she says. “That way, you’re also not leaving out the high flyers that also need to be pushed. When they finish that checklist, there’s always something at the end so you’re not leaving them out or holding them back. You’re still pushing them forward.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick. 

Marissa Young is one of more than 16,000 ISTE members who are using technology to transform learning in classrooms around the globe. Join our tribe of passionate educators