The Ease of Teaching Student-Centered Math

student centered math

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One question that comes up so frequently when I talk to people about student-centered learning is,” but how can you do this with math?”. Honestly, it’s a really valid question. Math is very black and white, right or wrong. It doesn’t leave much for interpretation. How is it possible that we have the flexibility of teaching student-centered math?

So how in the world can you find yourself teaching student-centered math without going over the information in a traditional teacher-led fashion?

The younger you start the process of teaching student-centered math, the better. It makes it easier for our older students to engage themselves in mathematics if they are used to it from a younger age.

This particular post will focus on elementary level math, but a little brainstorming can certainly adjust it for older grades as well.

So when people ask “how to teach multiplication hands-on” or are trying to determine how “multiplication strategies” can be student-led, there is simple advice that I give them.

A great way to start this is if you, of course, flip the classroom, having the students learn the contents of how to solve the math task at hand, and then using class time for deeper interpretation and hands-on activities with the numbers themselves. It’s not just teaching student-centered math that snags people though. One thing is for sure: sometimes it’s not necessarily about the hands-on math resources themselves, but how to find them.

Hands-On Resources in Math

For younger grades in mathematics, there truly are a number of fantastic hands-on resources out there that help create a game based element to math, which is a little bit easier to incorporate into your classroom while teaching student-centered math. One great game is Prodigy, which it seems like the kids simply cannot get enough of. It’s extremely competitive and one of those games where they completely forget that the purpose of it is to be practicing math. I suggest you check it out.

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I came across a fantastic bunch of resources from education.com that takes common math concepts and turns them into great little activities for teaching student-centered math. Below is an example of one such activity for students who are learning about coins and decimal points. it takes no time at all to set up, supplies that you pretty much have on hand already, and is a trip for the students who are taking part in the activity.

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Addition Treasure Hunt

It’s a rare student who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt and a rare teacher who doesn’t want kids to be able to learn the fundamentals of money math. Here’s an activity that puts them all together for learning and fun, a great way to find yourself teaching student-centered math.

What You Need:

Loose change

Index cards or scrap paper

What You Do:

  1. Figure out a treasure hunt route around your classroom, school or playground with four or five destinations. Then, use the Secret Code Key (below) to spell out a clue card for each location. Let’s say, for example, you place a clue under your desk. Spell out “under the desk” in code, and send students there to find the card. Then, under the desk, place another card listing the next destination, and so forth.
  2. As per the example, the treasure hunt clues have two “levels.” First, the students match a number to a letter. Then, they will count up all the “cents” to make a total.
  3. At the end of the treasure hunt, have students bring all five cards to a table, and finish all card totals. Now, to bring it all home, invite the students to count out the totals in real money! Using pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, can they make $1.06? $1.25?
  4. Then, with all five piles of coins together, what is the grand total?
money-magic-secret-codes-example

Here’s the Code Breaker with an example of a coded message:

____   ____ ____  ____  ____ ____     ____  ____    ____  ____!

.25   .15   .21   .03   .01  .14      .04  .15       .09  .20  

Secret Code Key:

A = .01

B = .02

C = .03

D = .04

E = .05

F = .06

G = .07

H = .08

I = .09

J = .10

K = .11

L = .12

M =.13

N =.14

O = .15

P = .16

Q = .17

R = .18

S = .19

T = .20

U = .21

V = .22

W = .23

X = .24

Y = .25

Z = .26

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If you like this activity or interested in finding other ones like it, you can check out education.com Resource Bank found here. There is also a number of different other grade-level specific hands-on resources for preschool through fifth grade with great activities for teaching student-centered math.

While the particular activity above focuses on addition in a math class, there are also a number of other subject areas that you can get activities from as well. Subjects include anything from coding, to fine arts, to Ela and even social-emotional learning. There is even a specific section for English learners. You have not yet checked out education.com and its resources, certainly take the time to do so.

Three children giving thumbs up

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Sometimes coming up with hands-on resources can be challenging, but when you find a resource like education.com and their huge bag of activities, it makes it much easier for teaching student-centered math. You may always have to tweak and activity to meet your specific student’s needs, but that is not a big deal (and is something you should constantly be doing anyway!).

It also allows itself to differentiate well for the students. You may tweak and activity for one level versus another, or find something that is completely different to give different levels of students that are still covering the same information. That is the beauty of hands-on learning and it doesn’t get much more student-centered than that.

The resource bank from education.com shows that it is possible to be hands-on with a number of different grades, topics, and levels of ability. If you need something quick for a holiday or other such non-curriculum-based moment in your classroom, this is a great place to look as well. There is certainly no shame in taking a resource from someone who is already put the thought into how to make it into an activity for teaching student-centered math.

When I first started student-centered learning, a lot of the resources that I got were from other people who had already created them. In my very first year of teaching, my mentor couldn’t have been more clear with the idea that when it comes to teaching, don’t reinvent the wheel!

For sure, we all have fantastic ideas, but when there are some things that are a little bit more basic, most likely somebody else has already created an activity for it and you can borrow their thoughts with their permission.

Of course, you never want to take an activity and just straight use it without making sure it’s appropriate for your students, but it’s a great template to help you move forward in your classroom with an idea that you had brewing, but couldn’t necessarily get down into an assignment, or simply didn’t have the time to put it together. Education.com is a great example are they trustworthy source to gain resources from. I highly suggest you check them out!

Below is a contribution from guest blogger Kelcee Calloura, who ROCKS math stations in her elementary classroom.

I want to talk to you about student-centered math stations in the classroom and especially focus on how to make this possible when you have a short window of teaching time. Believe it or not, it is possible to implement it into your daily routine and create ways for teaching student-centered math.


There is a lot of thought about whether or not you can really create an environment conducive to student-centered math when you have such a short period of time each day. The fear is always that you will spend too much time trying to get the students organized and not enough learning will take place in order to fulfill the requirements of the curriculum. This simply is not the case. Here is a look at what I do in my classroom room Monday-Thursday; our Friday is enrichment or intervention day.

A Schedule for Teaching Student-Centered Math

Before stations can be established, students are placed in one of three groups; high, middles, or lowers (they do not which group is which only the teacher should know). This year I am fortunate to have a small number of students so I only have three groups per class. But, in years past I have had at least 30 plus students and these rotations still work. It is simply a matter of planning out what you have and making sure your students are where they will have the most success.

It is also important to follow along with their data and move them around to different groups with different students when it is deemed necessary to keep the students challenged, but also make sure that they are learning the best. This is what truly makes it student-centered math. While there is some debate about grouping, as discussed in this article from Engaging Maths, keeping up with your student’s achievement and resetting them as necessary, making sure that they are consistently challenged and improving.

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I use MATH KATS to name our stations and to tell the students what they are working on for each station. This is just a fun spin I put on our school mascot, the “Bearkats”, and my kiddos enjoy knowing that when it is MATH KATS time, that we will be moving around our rotations. This was an easy way to get them excited to buy-in to student-centered math.

In my current classroom setup for teaching student-centered math, I teach two groups of students for 50 minutes each class period. This has been the easiest way to see all of my kids every day. Depending on what activity they are doing I can see how they are performing when I am not in front of them. I try to make it so each station follows the following criteria so there is a mixture of elements that benefit each student’s individual learning strengths (and also allows them to work on their areas of weaknesses). These include:

  1. Kinesthetic- Hands-on, manipulative, game, task cards
  2. Application- Focus TEK or Topic for the day, independent work
  3. Technology- a Computer game, interactive Smartboard, Quizizz, (a Student-Centered World favorite!), Boom Cards, Quizlet, Google Classroom, Education.com, Math Antics (only $20.00 for a whole year subscription)
  4. Small-Group– Meet with Teacher (I usually use curriculum lessons (Envision) with the help of DOK leveled questions)

I take about 3-5 minutes in the morning before stations start to explain to my students what each station is about and what to do with it. This way, if there are any questions ahead of time or clarifications that are needed, they can be asked so the entire class has the same clarification. This adds an element of teaching student-centered math because it lessens the chance of a student who is off on their own not completing a task as assigned because they do not understand the directions. It also limits interruptions to small group instruction.

In theory, if just a small handful of students don’t fully understand the directions, other students can help them (adding even more to the concept of the student-centered math model). Whereas if they were off on their own to understand the directions, the scale might tip in the other direction instead, making the station activity ineffective. To help even further, each group has the same directions I have given before stations started in writing in case a student is unsure or doesn’t quite remember what was discussed. It takes a bit of planning beforehand, but it helps to make sure the day’s activities go smoothly once they are executed.


My students rotate through each station every 10-15 minutes depending on who needs more or less time. I do not spend as much time with my high students as I do with my middles or lowers, but with these stations, you see your high students every day, so you can add enrichment to your lessons for those students. Again, it is imperative to be following along with the data that each student is individually giving to make sure that they are grouped appropriately and that each is receiving the most beneficial time that they need to truly grasp the material they are tasked with at that particular station.


Along with my lessons, I like to use DOK level questions: 
Click here for a free download! These provide students with differentiated questions that can go with any lesson and grade level.

If you have class sizes that have more groups here is an example of a teacher who has five stations that work with a larger class size. I love how she added “Review Skills” into her stations.

One of the reasons I love these rotations is that they are all student-centered. You can adapt them to any subject or grade level. They can be easily changed to fit your teaching style and what your students need. That is the beauty of student-centered math.

For fun, I use Bitmojis quite a bit in my classroom to add some flair to station names too.

There are so many ways to make student-centered math work in your classroom. It just takes planning and preparation, but it is well worth it in the end.

Thanks, Kelcee!

Math Racer: A Multiplication Racing Game (on paper!)

Often when you start Googling for multiplication racing games, the internet looks back at you with a lot of awesome games that are all technologically based. Games are a great option when determining how to teach multiplication, but what if you don’t have the technology you need? It’s important that activities reflect teaching student-centered math, so what can we do?

While there are some fantastic multiplication racing games out there online, sometimes it is necessary or simply more convenient to have one that can be printed out on paper and have the students’ hands on it.

Knowing that adding a challenge (in this case, a multiplication race) adds an element of excitement for our students, the level of both buy-in and engagement improves, and thus, more learning takes place. It is the answer to your “how to teach multiplication” question.

The best part is that this particular multiplication racing game can be adapted for different students. Being able to differentiate based on educational need is not only necessary but extremely handy as well.

Introducing “Math Racer

My son has been obsessed with NASCAR since he was old enough to watch the cars go around the track. As a matter of fact, the very first thing he ever watched on television when he was little was the Daytona 500. We had tried all the typical children’s shows, but the first thing he was ever locked and loaded on was that race. From that moment on, he wanted to go fast!

Adding that racecar element to a game that helps with multiplication skills and multiplication strategies was a huge bonus in this case.

Math Racer is simple but effective.

Preview of completed Math Racer Game

The student (or teacher) begins by picking three different denominators to work on for each of the three laps. In the example above, the numbers 3, 4, and 5 were selected.

There is also an option to do just one lap with one denominator. This is on a separate game board.

From here, the students need a timer and something to write with.

They will activate the timer and begin moving left from the “Start” location. Under where it says “lap 1”, they will answer the question.

For instance, the first equation to solve would be “3 x 0”.

Once they answer that equation, they would move on to the next in line. In this instance, it would be “3 x 1”.

The student will work their way around the board until the final equation is solved (3 x 12) and they will stop the timer and record their “lap time”. In this case, the first lap time was 1:10.

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There are also two different versions of this particular game board. The one that is pictured above labels each lap so as the student does not need to adjust his or her paper at all. The other version makes it so they need to spin the paper to keep up with the track lap labels (as shown in the example below). This just adds another element of challenge.

Once the first lap is completed, they will then move on to the second lap, doing the same, and then finally the third.

Example of student completing "Math Racer" activity

This can really be modified in so many ways for students who seemingly know their time tables already and others that are finding them to be more of a challenge.

It can be a homework assignment, center activity, or whole class challenge.

The possibilities are endless and is a great way for teaching student-centered math.

As I’ve mentioned over and over for various subjects, you know your students best. You know what they need, who needs an extra push, and who needs to be challenged more. This activity is a great way to review multiplication while meeting all students where their needs are.

And the best part is…it’s fun.

Interested in checking out Math Racer? Click the button below:

Check Out Math Racer

Math Games for Kids: Multiplication Find Four

Often when we are searching for a good math game for kids, especially when teaching student-centered math multiplication strategies, a lot of digital products pop up. Not that they don’t have a lot of merit behind them, but sometimes we just need something that we can put on paper and have the students use, tech-free.

It is important when reviewing multiplication facts to keep the activities engaging or our students will lose focus quickly when trying to find how to teach multiplication. I remember just being made to recite them over and over again and, even as an adult, the thought makes me cringe.

And frankly, I don’t think the blanket repetition truly helped me.

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Students, especially today’s Generation Z students, need to be engaged and find merit in what they’re doing. This is purely because of the world they have been born in to. They don’t know a life without Smart Phones or YouTube. We can’t expect them to learn the same as previous generations when their lives are completely different in every way.

It is important to find ourselves teaching student-centered math now mroe than ever.

And yet, we need to make sure we are challenging them with opportunities that don’t always require a screen for entertainment.

You know what always brings about entertainment? Board games.

Nothing gets students pumped like a little challenge against their friends. Add in the educational benefits of something made for curriculum and you have the perfect storm for student engagement through play and will find yourself teaching student-centered math.

Four in a line bingo game isolated on white background

One game that always seems to be a winner is the classic “find four” game. Players compete to try to find four in a row of their color after taking turns dropping them within the game board.

I took this concept and applied it to teaching multiplication.

Playing Multiplication Find Four in the Classroom

Student playing multiplication find four, showing equation and game board with pieces placed accordingly

In Multiplication Find Four, there are boards, chips, and equations ready in both color and black and white for the 2-12 times tables. They are also available blank in case you have your own idea to run with.

The students will draw an equation and solve it. They then place their chip on the corresponding number answer on the board.

If you choose not to play with the chips, each student can just use a different color marker to color in their answer spots.

In the case of the example above, 4 x 4 = 16, so this student would find a number 16 on the board and place his chip on there. There are 4 possible spots where the number 16 would appear on the board, so it is up to the student to choose the spot that would benefit them in trying to get that coveted four in a row.

There are plain chips and also ones that have each of the possible answers on them, depending on which element you are going for as your students play. While there would only be two options for each player to get an answer (each equation is reversed, meaning there is a 2 x 3 option as well as a 3 x 2 option), there are four chips in that color with the answer 6 on them just to have extras (and to add an additional element to the game if you choose). If you choose to use the number chip, the student would find the “16” chip in the photo example above and then place that chip on the 16 that he decided upon.

student playing multiplication find four

If you DO use the chips, I would suggest laminating them for repeated use. You can put the different color chips into condiment cups with lids (ad) for easy access and storage (make sure you are storing by denominator as the chips for the “2” equations would be different than the “7” ones and so on.)

Relish mustard ketchup and mayonnaise condiments in clear containers on white background

Another good idea if you are going this route is to add clear velcro dots to the chips and game board so they stay in place (ad). Nothing will cause a classroom meltdown faster than someone bumping into a desk and sending chips flying.

Cutting out the chips takes the most work in getting this set up, so if you’re going that route, I would do what I could to keep them safe!

Also, if you have some students who are looking for something to help with or parents who come in to assist, many hands would make light work for this.

You also have the option to use this as a station type activity so you would need to cut out minimal chips.

And again, you could just go with markers and forget the chips all together if you just need a quick activity.

If you’re interested in checking out Multiplication Find Four and teaching student-centered math, click the button below:

Multiplication Find 4

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