Supporting Independent Math Work

April 30, 2020
Kate Gasaway


It’s never been more clear that independent work is badly named. Although students may seem to be working by themselves on independent work in the classroom, students’ isolation from teachers and their classmates has revealed how much interaction there actually is during solo work.

In a classroom students feed off each other’s energy for motivation, gauge their progress relative to their peers and look to their teacher for cues, support, or direct intervention when necessary. A quick glance at a students’ paper can prompt you to ask a strategic question, check for understanding of an underlying skill, or even use body language to subtly prompt a hesitant student. At home, students are dependent on their (and their family’s) own emotional resources, executive functioning skills, and knowledge. Quick, custom feedback and non-verbal communication are casualties of the move to remote learning.

Without these implicit and explicit interactions, independent work is harder. As students necessarily do most of their work independently now, supporting them requires new techniques, old techniques used in new ways, and creative thinking. Because of the inherent challenges of seeing students work in real time during remote learning, it makes sense to try to embed the supports students need directly in the assignments. As we emphasized in our blog post on engineering ELA texts, adjusting independent math assignments for distance learning does not mean lowering the rigor of an assignment or changing the problems students are asked to solve. Instead, we suggest enhancing them to make them more accessible.

Take a look at the before and after of an 8th grade problem set to see the kinds of supports we're talking about.

Here are 10 tips to help you build your own independent work assignments that make remote learning more like in-class learning:

Use formatting and scaffolding to add structure to independent assignments

1. Use text elements like titles, bolding, tables, bullet points, and section headers to draw student’s attention to important information and make expectations clear.

For example, if every time a student needs to add their answer to a question there is a box for them to type in, they are far less likely to accidentally skip a question. This also makes it easier for you to see what you need to grade, read, or review.

Check out Problem #1 before and after to see how providing a graphic organizer can add clarity.

If you’re using the Fishtank Plus feature that sends assignments directly to Google Classroom, we have some additional tips specifically about formatting these documents.

2. Break problems into multi-part questions that help students follow the chain of thought you need them to internalize.

Because students aren’t in the classroom, they don’t hear you model your thinking (unless you’re recording yourself, and if so, massive props), don’t overhear you repeating yourself to other students, and are more likely to miss something without that rich, multi-modal experience.

Scaffolded, small questions (like those used in Problem #4) will also let students feel successful and productive as they complete small goals within an assignment. Also, bonus, if you use general scaffolding questions instead of problem-specific ones, you can literally copy/paste them in your document. 

3. Use white text to embed opt-in prompts to assignments.

In Google Docs, you can use white text in your documents to let students see the kinds of prompts or suggestions you might give them in class. Students can highlight the text to see what you’d say to them if they were stuck on a specific problem. If you’re worried about lowering the rigor of an assignment by doing this, try only adding questions in your whitespace hints.

Example on google docs showing how to use white text to mask information until a student needs it.

Explore the kinds of prompts you can give beginning in Problem #2 of our exemplar.

Make examples and reference materials easy to access

4. Include worked examples at the beginning of an assignment or clearly refer to a document with worked examples that students can easily access.

With Google or Word documents, linking directly to the example reference in the assignment is simple. Check out the worked example embedded at the beginning of our example problem set.

5. Include blank templates of models or tools that students may need or references to tools students can use to enter their work efficiently.

This could mean adding number lines, word banks, standardized test reference materials, or tape diagrams to assignments. 

6. Think about the materials you have on the walls of your classroom that students would usually reference in class, and make that information easy for students to access.

This could mean providing students a dense, handy reference sheet, decorating your class landing page with these elements, or giving students a list of important information and assigning them the design challenge of fitting them all on 1–2 pages.

In our example, we provide the link for a unit reference sheet at the outset.

Choose question and answer types that play to remote learning’s strengths (or at least don’t lean into its weaknesses)

7. Consider using error analysis questions more frequently when students’ ability to write or type out their work is limited.  

8. Experiment with different media options for student work.

YouTube, voicemail, TikTok, projects, photo essays, and even regular essays could make sense for math assignments depending on the lesson and students’ access to technology.

Here’s an example of a student using TikTok to share her error analysis work with her teacher:


Get feedback about assignment design and user experience

9. If your students are capable of doing so, get feedback from them about what does and doesn’t work.

Their perspective is so important and they are bound to see things you don’t see and have ideas you haven’t thought of.

10. If an assignment doesn’t work out as planned, make note of which aspects were successful and which weren’t.

If you don’t have time at that moment to change it for the next time you use it, make a note on the assignment so you don’t accidentally reassign it as-is later on.


You may find many of these suggestions familiar from your work accommodating or modifying assignments for students with IEPs. That’s definitely intentional. That toolkit has a wealth of universal design elements that will make your independent assignments more accessible for all of your students. If possible, connect with special education professionals to get their input. Their expertise could help you see new ways to support all of your students. 

It might seem crazy to think about next year right now, but the work you do now to add supports to assignments to make them accessible online will be so incredible for your students for years to come, so stay organized and save your work! If students give you feedback about assignments, or you notice something doesn’t quite work the way you hoped it would, make a comment on the document so you don’t forget. You’ll be so glad you did down the road. 


Kate Gasaway is the Curriculum Associate for Mathematics. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Psychology with research and business certificates from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a Master’s in Effective Teaching from the Sposato Graduate School of Education. She started her teaching career at Neighborhood House Charter School, spending five years teaching 8th grade math and one year teaching 6th grade math. 

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