Teaching Tip: Small Group Activities in Elementary Math

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As part of International Education Week 2009, the APEC Education Network is providing an opportunity for teachers across the Asia-Pacific region to exchange teaching tips for teacher professional development.  

Return to full list of International Education Week 2009 Teaching Tips.


Jasmine Ulmer


United States


Lake Butler Elementary School


Elementary Math


My students gain deeper conceptual understanding of math objectives through small group activities, or centers. Math centers support tactile and visual learners and give students the opportunity to explore and discover by manipulating math materials. In my upper elementary math classrooms, my students eagerly anticipate math centers. One particularly challenging class became so motivated by math centers that they would offer to forgo recess in order to continue practicing math in small groups. 

After I conclude the whole class math portion of my 90-minute math class, I reserve the last 20-30 minutes for daily small group instruction. Groups consist of approximately 5 students who generally complete 1 center per day and rotate through 5 different centers each week. I have used this format successfully with students at all levels of proficiency between the ages of 7 to 11.

In small groups, students build skills of collaboration. They can explain mathematical concepts to one another in small group discussions; by listening and participating in their discussions, I gain insights into their understandings and misconceptions. As a teacher, I use centers to individualize instruction by providing additional support for struggling students or additional challenges for students who have mastered the material.

Although small group instruction is primarily intended to individualize learning experiences for students, an added benefit is that centers allow for all students to share limited supplies. For example, my classrooms tend to have less than 5 computers available for student use. While it is not feasible for every student to simultaneously use a computer, students can share materials through small group rotations.

Planning and creating materials for math centers can be time intensive. Additionally, students need to have a clear understanding of classroom rules, procedures, and expectations during math centers in order for the classroom to be well-managed. Sometimes groups will complete their tasks in different lengths of time, so I will leave additional activities such as flashcards in the event that a particular group finishes before the rest of their classmates. I post a list of students in each group and their corresponding center assignments to minimize the time spent during transitions. I also set out all materials that students will need ahead of time, usually on a tray or in a plastic container. For example, the math vocabulary center (where students complete graphic organizers and paper folding activities) is located in a large plastic caddy that contains written directions for the center, colored pencils, glue, safety scissors, rulers, and an individual file folder for each student to place his or her work. The file folders become individual portfolios that showcase student work collected throughout the year.

Even though centers are engaging and hands-on, it is important to keep center activities closely aligned with the standards and objectives for each lesson. For example, students use linking cubes and base-10 blocks for lessons on place value, plastic coins for money, three-dimensional shapes in geometry, and various measurement tools (including rulers, protractors, graduated cylinders, thermometers, and scales). My students gain stronger understandings of measurement concepts, for example, when they have opportunities to measure volume, temperature, and length. Similarly, centers that allow students to exchange money using plastic coins and cash registers simulate realistic transactions of purchasing goods at a store and receiving correct change. Centers not only allow students to apply abstract concepts in real-world scenarios, centers also engage and motivate students while increasing learning gains.