top of page

Creating Collaboration in Math Class

Last week I wrote a blog post about Setting Up Math Class for a Successful School Year. One of the tips for the first days of school was to "set clear expectations for engaging in problem solving and discourse." I shared that we need to let students know they are expected to grapple with problems, create representations, and collaborate with peers in math. So, how do we set up collaboration for students to be able to engage in problem solving and discourse?

An example with adult learners

This week I had my first day of class for a course in which I teach adults. The course prepares educators to be Elementary Mathematics Specialists and focuses on leadership in mathematics curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

To start off class we engaged in this 100 Numbers activity. There was a ton of energy in the room. Groups competed against each other and themselves to circle the numbers 1-100 as fast as they could. We discussed patterns they found and strategies that worked well and didn't work so well.

This is what the adult learners said about collaboration as we debriefed the activity:

  • It worked better to work on the paper together rather than to pass it back and forth between individuals.

  • The strategies came together smoother when the group had time to discuss strategies and what each group member's role was.

  • They encouraged and coached group members, but they did not do the work for other group members.

  • The more they worked together, the easier the task became.

This activity served as a way to make connections between students learning math and adults learning together in a course. In either setting collaboration in problem solving is essential.

How do we set up collaboration?

Create a physical space that promotes collaboration.

Notice in the example above, the physical environment was conducive to collaboration. The educators sat four to a table with space to work together. They also had the option to sit or stand. Before class I moved tables and intentionally put four chairs at each table to create this environment. In college I remember learning about mixing up the arrangement of seating for a variety of purposes and was even told to start off the first few weeks in rows rather than tables so students wouldn't talk too much. That definitely didn't promote collaboration the way having students at tables does.

How do you set up the physical environment and seating in your classroom to promote collaboration?

Provide tasks that invite and expect collaboration.

The task itself required collaboration and had clear constraints regarding collaboration. Of course there is a time and a space for students to work independently, but during the beginning of the school year when you are creating a culture of collaboration, provide tasks that invite and expect collaboration.

How can you modify tasks to promote collaboration?

Model and discuss what effective collaboration looks like.

After the first round of the activity, we stopped to see how many numbers each table had circled. The class noticed the tables that had circled more numbers had kept the paper on the table and were working together, watching each other, and coaching each other rather than passing the paper back and forth. In an elementary class you can point out how groups are working together effectively, you can have students come to the front and model effective communication and collaboration, you can also create a chart listing what collaboration looks like and sounds like.

How can you show students what effective collaboration looks like and sounds like?

Here are some of my favorite resources on creating collaboration:

During the pandemic, whether out of necessity or circumstance, groupwork and collaboration among students waned. In this ACSD article, university professor Kristina Doubet makes a case for why educators need to bring this skill back to the classroom, using examples from the business world for best practices.

This Illustrative Mathematics blogpost highlights strategies for building a strong math community including setting norms and discussing what it means to learn math by doing math.

This Edutopia article shares a teacher-created scaffolding tool can elevate classroom dialogue, empowering students to express themselves while learning from the ideas of others.

This Edutopia article discusses when teachers take a step back from center stage, they create space for students to collaborate as active math learners.

Let me know how you create collaboration in math class.


Sara VanDerWerf. (2020, August 18). 100 numbers to get students talking. Sara VanDerWerf. Retrieved August 24, 2022, from

135 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page