Build Independence in the Math Classroom

January 18, 2023
Rachel Fuhrman

Has this ever happened to you: You get through your guided instruction and it is time for students to work independently. But, instead of diving into the assignment, students sit around and wait for you to review it or jump out of their seats with questions? Maybe you gave up on the assignment being independent or ran yourself ragged trying to get to every student for support. Independent work can be especially difficult in math classrooms where many students don’t feel as confident tackling problems or simply don’t know how to start. Rather than abandoning independent work altogether, you can use these two strategies to support your students in confidently jumping into math problems independently.


Individual Anchor Charts

You have probably created an anchor chart for your classroom at some point in your teaching career. While it can be really helpful to have those key reminders, formulas, or definitions hanging on the walls, it isn’t always the most effective way to get students to apply the information you are displaying. Many of my own students would struggle to physically see the anchor chart they wanted, forget which information was where in the room, or be unsure which problems required the information displayed.

To remedy this, you can create individual anchor charts for students. This can literally mean taking a photo of the anchor chart you already created and printing it out so a student can have it physically on their desk while working. If you have the time, you may create a specialized anchor chart for your Multilingual Learners that includes additional definitions, visual aids, or sentence stems to support them with the particular independent assignment. Similarly, if you have some students that are still working to hone their fluency skills, you may decide to give them a completed or partially completed multiplication chart to use if the independent assignment is not specifically assessing fluency. 

When deciding what types of anchor charts to give to students, consider the needs of your individual students and where they are most likely to need support. As you internalize your lesson, you can identify the type of support students will need and begin to create your anchor charts. Each unit contains information on the foundation skills your students will need to rely on to access new content. You can create your anchor charts to reflect those foundational skills for students that are still working to build them. 

As a 6th grade math teacher preparing to teach Lesson 4 of the Numerical and Algebraic Expressions unit, I might decide to assign the problem set (available with Fishtank Plus) as independent practice during class. Here is one problem from that problem set.

Two math expressions with the instructions: Evaluate the following expressions

There are many possibilities for what your individual anchor charts might look like for this particular problem set. Some options include the Order of Operations, a worked example of a similar problem, a multiplication chart, or an illustration of how exponents should be solved. 

Students will feel empowered to attempt problems that might have been otherwise intimidating when they have an individual anchor chart to give them a sense of direction for solving.


Strategic Assignment Design 

For some students, receiving a worksheet and being asked to complete it independently is overwhelming. Whether these students are struggling in math, lack confidence in their ability, or are unfamiliar with how to approach the problems, you can make modifications to the physical appearance of your assignments to ease students’ anxiety and give them an entry point for solving. 

As a math teacher, you may not have worked with engineered text before. The concept is generally focused on increasing student access to complex text by adding supports like definitions and scaffolded questions. However, the same general idea can be applied to math assignments! Fishtank Plus users have access to ready-made handouts that can be downloaded and edited in Google Docs before being given to students. Some of the modifications you might want to consider include:

  • Definitions for academic vocabulary
  • Breaking a larger problem into smaller steps
  • Physically spacing problems out so students have more room to show their work
  • Bolding keywords in the problem
  • Offering sentence stems and lines on which to write short response answers

Similar to the previous 6th grade example, as a 4th grade teacher preparing to teach Lesson 4 of the Unit Conversions unit, I might decide to assign the problem set as independent practice. Here is one problem from that problem set.

Math word problem

One immediate modification I would make to support students would be to bold the units to draw student attention to that fact that they will need to convert between kilograms and grams to solve. Next, I would underline the words “less than” and “together” to help students start to think about what operation these keywords indicate. It would look like this:

Math word problem with bolded key words

For my Multilingual Learners, I might want to include a table at the top of the problem set that listed out keywords that relate to each of the four basic operations to guide students in their solving process. Finally, I would make sure students had plenty of space to do their work and include a line on which students could write their final answers. 

The modifications you make to an individual assignment will depend on the level of support your students need but these modifications can have a profound impact on a student’s ability to understand a problem and make a plan for solving

Want more strategies for supporting students in math? Check out the Fishtank Math Teacher Tools and upgrade to Fishtank Plus for access to additional material and guidance for your classroom.


Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.

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