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Small-Group Instruction May Be Key to Mastering Early Math, New Study Finds

Small group math instruction outside of regular class time helped kindergartners in high-poverty schools perform better in math in a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan. 

Math-preschool-abacus-article-Getty.jpgMore than 650 kindergarten students in low-income New York City schools participated in the High 5s program, an initiative designed to make math instruction fun in a club-like environment.  

"All of the activities were presented to children in the format of a game," said Robin Jacob, a research associate professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, who helped to design the program, which was intended to give children an opportunity for hands-on learning and individualized instruction.

Jacob and her research partner, Brian Jacob, recently wrote about their work in the Brookings Institution's Evidence Speaks blog, which highlights new and interesting research.

For seven months, groups of three to four students met outside of class with trained facilitators for 30 minutes. These "club" meetings took place three days a week either before or after school or at lunch.

Impact on Math Assessment

At the end of kindergarten, the club students were tested alongside a control group of students who had not had the additional work in math. The program had a positive, though not statistically significant, impact on student scores on the Woodcock-Johnson Applied Problems assessment, a global measure of math ability. But the students in the High 5s program did score significantly higher on a test that measured students' discrete math skills.

Jacob attributes the program's positive benefits to a combination of factors, including the additional time spent on the subject. 

"The small group piece of that probably also made a big difference—both the individualized instruction that children were getting as well as the opportunities to engage in math talk and the hands-on types of activities," said Jacob. "The group facilitators spent a lot more time asking open-ended kinds of questions than the children were having opportunities to respond to in their general classrooms."

Practical Applications

But Jacob acknowledges that adding this type of individualized instruction and small-group work might be challenging for many schools.

"It is much easier to do those kinds of interactive, engaging activities in small groups," said Jacob. "Many teachers, especially in urban settings, there's only one adult and 24 or 27 kids. It's really hard to do that kind of instruction in that whole group with a bunch of 5-year-olds who require a lot of attention just to keep on task."

She suggested schools may want to look into either adding paraprofessionals, parents or other volunteers to help provide this type of instruction.

The High 5s program study was part of a larger study conducted by the MDRC on interventions that help to close the achievement gap. MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization created by the Ford Foundation and a group of federal agencies in 1974. 

Image by Getty


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