How to Use Workstations in the Math Classroom

By Dr. Nicki Newton, Ed.D.

Today’s 21st century classroom is filled with so many different learners and more possibilities than ever to reach and teach all those learners. Carol Ann Tomlinson asked the question over 20 years ago, “How do I divide time, resources, and myself so that I am an effective catalyst for maximizing talent in all my students?”

Math workstation is one of the ways to address the varied needs of students and curricular demands of classrooms. They take up the task of being able to engage students with the curriculum by appealing to different interests, levels of understanding, and zones of proximal development. They help to build mathematical proficiency, increase conceptual understanding, and above all, improve attitudes about math by making it fun.

What is a workstation?

A workstation is a structure for students to practice the current of unit study ideas and engage in ongoing review. It isn’t a specific place; it is a structure for practicing the standards. They can be a game, an activity, or a project. They can be done with a paper and pencil or digital tools. Some workstations stay up all year while others rotate throughout the year. Students practice in a variety of ways including by themselves, with a partner, and sometimes in a small group. Students usually spend 10–15 minutes at each workstation with no more than three to five students at each station.

What kind of activities can students do in a workstation?

There are many different types of activities that can happen in a workstation:

Working with tools: The intentional and well-planned use of manipulatives and other tools is also positively related to student achievement and attitudes about math. Students can unpack key ideas and understandings through building arrays with 1-inch tiles, using meter sticks to discover measurement around the room and building fraction sets with circles and bars.

Pictorial representations: Marzano (2010) notes that there are many different forms of nonlinguistic representations including graphic organizers, sketches, pictographs (sticks figures and symbols), concept maps, dramatizations, and more. Boaler (2016) notes that visual math is an important part of learning and that new brain research shows how it is connected with students understanding the numbers.

Games: These include board games, card games, and dice games, where students are working mainly with numbers. They could be exploring concepts through traditional games such as tic-tac-toe and bingo or newer games such as bump and four-in-a-row.

Group projects: Students can work alone, with partners, or in small groups. Students can work alone by building out word problems. They might work with partners by playing a dice or card game. They might play a board game in small groups. The game structures stay the same throughout the year, but the content changes.

How do I make my workstation successful?

Successful workstations have:

  • Standards: “Standards-based” does not only mean the standards are written on the board in I can or some type of learning objective, it means that students understand what they are learning about, and can explain it.
  • Math practices/processes: Math workstations work not only on developing conceptual understanding, but also on developing problem-solving, reasoning, modeling, communicating, using tools, using precise language and calculations, and understanding structure and looking for patterns (NCTM, 2000; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
  • Academic rigor: Emphasis is on getting students to practice math concepts in a way that challenges them, and then apply that knowledge as part of the practice. There is also an emphasis on students working together to explain their thinking, justify their explanations, and prove that they are correct.
  • Student accountability: Math workstations have recording sheets, so that student are accountable for the activities and games they are doing, and have an opportunity to self-correct. Moreover, teachers must provide opportunities for students to reflect on the math that they are practicing, sometime during the week on entrance and/or exit slips. Teachers must also keep track of the work and reflect on it.
  • Accountable language: Math is a language. If students don’t know the words and aren’t required to speak it, they never learn it. One way to do this is to have language frames that scaffold the language and the phraseology for the students at the workstations.
  • Ancedotals: Math workstation work is another form of ongoing assessment. Teachers should keep ancedotals of what they see students doing in their workstations. This is done as the teacher walks around and sometimes even joins in to observe what is happening in the workstation.
  • Scaffolded to unscaffolded activities: In workstations, students use a variety of visuals, graphic organizers, templates, tools, and intentional grouping structures (alone, partner, and small group) to scaffold the math. Scaffolding is temporary but often necessary. As students learn the concepts and understand the math they are doing and become proficient with the skills, the scaffolding is phased out.

Why are workstations important?

Everything a student does in a workstation should be meaningful, engaging, standards-based, and rigorous. They should be leveled based on where a student is, allowing students to do work in their zone of proximal development, gaining mastery throughout the year. They should never be boring, or frustrating. Students should be engaging in “just right activities” that scaffold their learning in alignment with the grade-level standards. Students should be familiar with the ideas that they are working on in the workstation. The activities are meant to solidify learning the knowledge and skills through purposeful practice.


Learn more about workstations from Dr. Nicki Newton, and other research-based practices in math, by visiting:


Going to NCTM 2019? Hear from Dr. Nicki Newton about workstations in action and purposeful fluency practice. Learn more about this session here.


Dr. Nicki Netwon is an education consultant who works with schools and districts around the country on elementary math curriculum. She has taught elementary school, middle school, and graduate school. Having spent several years as a bilingual teacher and staff developer, she has an extensive background in Sheltered Instruction and English Language Learner Strategies She has an EdM and an EdD from the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, specializing in teacher education and curriculum development.


References

Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Marzano, R. (2007). Art and science of teaching. Retrieved December 15, 2018, from http://www. ascd.org/publications/books/107001/chapters/What-will-I-do-to-help-students-practiceand-deepen-their-understanding-of-new-knowledge%C2%A2.aspx

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common core state standards, Mathematics. Washington, DC: Author. Newton, R. (in press). Leveling math workstations: k-2. New York, NY: Routledge. Pellegrino, A. (2007). How can learning centers be used to promote classroom instruction and promote critical