Six ways maths mastery supports struggling learners

|4 min read

A little struggle can be productive, but too much can be a barrier to progress. Here’s how maths mastery can support your struggling learners and help them reach their full potential.

There will always be learners who master maths quickly and those who take longer. Your struggling learners can change from topic to topic, but there will probably be a few learners in your class who find the material more challenging than others.

So what can you do to support them? Here are six ways that mastery teaching strategies can help struggling learners.

Use whole-class teaching

Whole-class teaching is a cornerstone of maths mastery. Its aim is to teach all learners together, making sure everyone masters the learning and moves along at the same pace.

You might be wondering if whole-class teaching can really help struggling learners to master maths.

Research confirms that struggling learners actually achieve more in mixed-ability classes. Seeing how other learners solve problems and interacting with their peers has huge benefits.

But the evidence goes even further than that. When children are taught in mixed-ability groups the tail of underachievement is reduced and the range of ability within the class decreases. When you teach everyone together, you make it easier for your struggling learners to move along at the same pace as their peers.

Encourage a growth mindset

Having a growth mindset means you believe hard work and practice leads to improvement. Carol Dweck’s research shows learners with a growth mindset achieve more in school and later on in life.

A growth mindset is essential for helping struggling learners succeed in a mastery classroom — how can everyone achieve the same learning if you don’t believe that it’s possible?

Encourage a growth mindset in your classroom by:

  • Seeing mistakes as an opportunity to learn
  • Praising effort rather than getting an answer right
  • Emphasising progress rather than speed
  • Using the word ‘yet’ — you haven’t mastered this yet, this answer isn’t right yet

Use journaling to reduce anxiety

Maths anxiety can cause learners to struggle, and struggling in maths can cause more anxiety. So how can you help learners break out of the cycle?

Maths journals encourage learners to communicate their knowledge about mathematics, but learners can also use journals to write down their feelings about their maths lessons. Journaling tasks can help learners reflect on their worries, reduce maths anxiety and even boost their performance on tests.

Use these journaling prompts to help learners write about their feelings:

  • When I hear the word ‘maths’ I…
  • My favourite or least favourite thing about maths is…
  • If maths were a colour it would be…
  • If maths were an animal it would be…

Encourage collaboration and peer tutoring

Children learn from and challenge each other when they work together. Collaboration is most effective in smaller groups, so try experimenting to work out the optimum size for your current class.

Peer tutoring has a positive impact on learning and can help struggling learners to consolidate their understanding. According to research by the Educational Endowment Foundation, the average effect is equivalent to approximately five additional months’ progress.

Struggling learners and learners with SEND benefit the most from peer tutoring, which is most effective as an ‘add-on’ to your regular teaching practice, rather than as a replacement.

Use effective interventions

Interventions let you provide personalised support outside your regular lessons and are a great way to ensure your struggling learners are making progress. Working from a research-based framework will help you see improved results.

The EEF recommends keeping these eight principles in mind when delivering interventions:

  1. Intervene early
  2. Use tried-and-tested strategies
  3. Use explicit and systematic teaching
  4. Use staff strategically
  5. Link to whole-class teaching
  6. Make interventions fun
  7. Balance interventions and classroom activities
  8. Use your time wisely

Use differentiation strategies

Varying the depth of learning lets you differentiate within mixed-ability teaching. It also lets you teach the same topic but at the right level for different learners.

Our post on differentiation strategies goes into more detail, but here are three basic principles to get you started:

  • All learners need to learn the ‘big ideas,’ no matter at what level
  • Use prior assessment to determine what needs different students have
  • Learners must have some aspect of choice, whether in content, process or product

For struggling learners, you could differentiate by providing concrete resources to use alongside pictorial representations. Another simple strategy is to set the same questions with ‘nicer numbers’ so that learners can focus on problem-solving rather than using up their working memory on long calculations.

Supporting struggling learners in the mastery classroom means helping them see their own potential, encouraging collaboration and providing targeted support when needed — not all that different from supporting your ‘middle’ and ‘advanced’ learners.

And that’s really the point. In the maths mastery approach, ‘struggle’ is a temporary state that learners experience when they find it hard to learn something new. Struggling doesn’t define a learner and doesn’t determine their maths potential.