Notes From My Journey to Helping Struggling Students Master Math

Out of the Box February 20 / February 26, 2020

 — By Carl Cortez —

I try to reassure my high school math students that hard work and persistence can offset math anxiety and result in mastery. When I first meet with my students,  I encourage them to share their true feelings about math as a subject, and I often hear the following: “Math is a real struggle for me; it drives me crazy.” I want to change those feelings. Once I flipped my math classes, many of my students felt less anxious about math.

After completing the Flipped Learning 3.0 Level 1 Certification course, it became obvious to me that I could use many of the new and innovative teaching techniques presented in the course to help my students. Thus, I video recorded some mini-lessons replete with suggestions and made those mini-lessons available to my students online. Those mini-lessons have worked well to reinforce my teaching points and serve as an excellent way to help students review for tests.

After several months, the quality of my videos improved as well as the comprehension of my students. My teaching techniques veered away from traditional classroom practices and evolved into productive and cooperative learning environments.

Since many teenagers are reluctant to ask questions, I always emphasize that acknowledging specific problems and addressing them quickly invariably contribute to improving test scores. Simply put, I tell my students that being aware of what they’re doing wrong is an important step towards rectifying their mistakes. 

An important topic that was presented during the FL Flipped Classroom Level 2 certification course featured Mastery Learning. Two instructors, Jon Bergmann and Cara Johnson described a Flipped Mastery classroom setting where students demonstrate their mastery.

Fortunately, there are two large breakout tables in my classroom. Originally designed for group work and extra assistance with groups, those tables are now designated as Mastery Check areas where guidelines are in place for students to work exclusively and quietly on Mastery Checks. By using Google Classroom, you can utilize its capability to check off material/updates for specific students who successfully complete Mastery Checks. Using Google Classroom, you can keep track of students who have finished a section, still need time, or may need to review prerequisite materials.

Soon after implementing Mastery Learning, it became apparent that assigning too many math problems had its drawbacks. Students found the assignments tedious and grading their work was excessively time-consuming. It is far more manageable and effective to assign between two and four problems per Mastery Check. By assigning fewer math problems, I can quickly scan to assess if my students have understood the material and met the standard I’ve asked them to meet. While overseeing Mastery Checks, I can interact with my students individually and answer questions as needed.

Post-it notes have been pivotal for the Mastery Checks of my students who are working at the mastery tables. Drawing from my knowledge of the Math Curriculum, it’s easy for me to make up similar but different math problems, write them on post-it notes, and then give them to individual students to afford them more practice. During the 15-second timeframe, it takes me to make up a new “post-it note” math problem, and I can answer students’ questions, express praise or encouragement, or remind students to avoid certain common mistakes.

Also, by spontaneously interjecting a different but similar math problem and allocating that math problem to a specific student, the tendency of some students for “sharing” their work with their friends is curtailed. Teachers want to know what their students have mastered, not the fact that they can copy a peer’s work.

For students who need more practice, I’m constantly searching the internet and looking for additional resources whether it’s an additional video, a practice set, or a different approach to reinforce our classwork.  

Three extra relevant resources for each topic would be ideal. Students are reminded that these resources are available online. Also, providing an answer key is advisable whenever appropriate so students can quiz themselves in preparation for a Mastery Check.

The feedback I’ve received from colleagues and students has been positive. Although my students find the Mastery Checks to be difficult, they understand it’s crucial that no important skills are neglected or overlooked. In a rigorous and challenging course such as Pre-Calculus, it is exhilarating to see students who are mastering the materials presented and appreciate the relevance of previously taught sections.

As I move forward through this academic year, I intend to implement more aspects of Mastery Learning in my teaching. I always remind myself that every student is unique and occasionally needs more math practice. What makes this technique work well is having videos completed ahead of time. At no point do I see my students bored or waiting for something else to do, which gives me great personal and professional satisfaction.

Do you see a typo or an error? Let us know.


Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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