Using Collaborative Problem Solving in Middle School Math

This is a post I wrote about middle school math problem solving back in 2013 (now revised), on my other blog, so the observation I refer to was quite a while ago now…how time flies!I was observed by one of my assistant principals today (a Friday). After 20 years, I don’t get super-worried when I’m going to be observed, but I still feel a little anxious. Today, I decided to have the students complete a problem solving activity and then start a “Footloose” activity, even though they wouldn’t finish….Footloose normally takes about 40 minutes, so I figured they could do about half and then finish on Monday. (I do this fairly often, to give students flexibility in their work time – they can take as long as needed to complete problem solving, but if they get done quickly, they can move on). Things went so well during the observation…AP commented that there was so much going on in the room, and that the kids were so engaged! I was happy:)

How do students benefit from solving problems together?

During the class, students worked on group problem solving, (which they have done previously, with other math skills). These particular problems involved comparing and ordering fractions. Our procedure was as follows:
1) Each group received a different sheet with a problem “situation” and 3-4 questions about that situation.   (I have five different sheets so that we can do the problem solving several different days with the same concepts, if needed and if time allows).
2) Each group read their situation and each of the questions together.
3) Each student spent 5-7 minutes, thinking/working individually to solve the questions, writing their work on their own recording sheet.
4) When students completed their individual thinking time, they compared their ideas (and answers if they had them), discussed any differences in thought, and worked to agree on final answers.
5) The final answers (with work) were written onto a group answer sheet to hand in. 

​When we did this type of group problem solving the first time (with decimal problems), we spent about 5 days on the problem solving, with each group working on a different problem sheet each day. The students really like the problem solving, partly because they are able to talk out their answers with each other. It’s great to hear their communication about math and how they are able to point out the steps a group member needs to complete or the concepts that they may have missed.

Today, it was great to hear them say “Oh, we’re doing this again. I like this!” My AP commented that he listened to hear what they were talking about, to see if they were focused, and he could hear one student explain to another how the work that they had done was different from another student.

The problem solving took about 15 minutes, and then as each group finished their problem, they moved on to Comparing and Ordering Fractions Footloose. This is a great game for keeping students engaged, but moving! Students start out with one card and a sheet of paper with 30 blank “blocks” in which to write answers to the questions on the cards. Each card has a number on it, and students record the answer to each card in the same number block as the number on the card. After answering the question on the card they start with, students put the card on the chalk ledge and pick up another card with another question to answer. Students continue answering and returning cards until they have answered all 30 questions. Students work so quietly when they are doing this activity!  My AP said it was like “night and day” when they switched from the problem solving to Footloose – they were talking about the p.s., but as soon as they started the Footloose, it was sooo quiet…..and I didn’t have to say anything for it to be this way – it just happened.

As I mentioned, I don’t really get worried when an observation comes around, but it was great to hear the positive feedback for these activities that I create for my students!


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Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!



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