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Using Collaborative Problem Solving in Middle School Math


This is a revised post about middle school math problem solving on my old blog, so the observation I refer to was quite a while ago!

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:
1) Complete a problem solving activity and then
2) Start a “Footloose” task card activity, even though they wouldn’t finish.

Footloose normally takes about 40 minutes, so I figured students could complete about half and then finish on Monday.

  • I use this combination of math activities this fairly often, to give students flexibility in their work time. They can take as long as needed to complete the math problem solving, but if they get done quickly, they can move on as soon as they’re ready.
  • Things went so well during this observation. The AP commented that there was so much going on in the room, and that the kids were so engaged! I was happy:)

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 we can do the math problem solving on several different days with the same concepts, if needed and if time allows.

2) Each group read their problem situation and each of the questions together.
3) Each student spent 5-7 minutes, thinking/working independently to solve the problems, writing their work on their own recording sheet.
4) When students completed their independent thinking time, they compared their ideas (and answers if they had them), discussed any differences in thoughts, and worked to agree on final answers.
5) The final answers (with work) were written onto a group answer sheet to hand in.

Initial Collaborative Math Problem Solving

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 math 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 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 during their problem solving time, to see if they were focused. He said he heard one student explain to another how the work they had done was different from another student.

Moving from Problem Solving to Math Task Cards

The problem solving took about 15 minutes, and then as each group finished their problems, they moved on to Comparing and Ordering Fractions Footloose task cards.

Footloose is a great math game/activity 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 task cards. I place extra cards on the whiteboard ledge.

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 that card on the whiteboard 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 so much during the problem solving, 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 about these math problem solving and task card activities that I’ve created for my students.


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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