9 Math Intervention Strategies for Struggling Students

Mathematics has potential to inspire wonder and foster creativity. It is far deeper than counting and arithmetic; math can provide irrefutable proof of grand ideas and predict new scientific discoveries.

As educators usher in a new generation of future problem solvers, a challenge to overcome today relates to current math proficiency levels. But fear not! No matter where students are on their math journeys, there are strategies educators can use to maximize and accelerate their growth.

What Is Math Intervention?

In the broadest terms, math interventions are ways to help students who are behind in their math learning. However, for many educators, the meaning of math intervention is the support provided to students who are two or more grade levels behind in a math topic. Many schools offer dedicated classes—frequently with fewer students and more than one teacher—to support students who would benefit from intensive math intervention.

Tier 1 and 2 Intervention vs. Tier 3 Intervention

The strategies described in this article do not differentiate among the three tiers of Response-to-Intervention (RTI) math strategies, where the first two tiers of students can typically be supported within a core classroom and the third tier typically receives separate intensive math instruction.

  • Tier 1: Core students receiving differentiated instruction
  • Tier 2: Students receiving targeted group interventions
  • Tier 3: Students receiving individualized, intensive intervention

All students have different learning needs. What works for one student may not work for another, and what works for one math topic may not work for another. These math strategies for students who are struggling are offered as ideas, and it is up to you, the educator, to listen to your students, try ideas you think will work, and adapt them to your individual class.

Planning Lessons for Students Who Are Struggling

Explore this list of math intervention strategies before giving a lesson, as they can be used in whole-class or small-group instruction and guide what problems to use in the first place.

Strategy 1: Peer Tutoring

Want to know one of the best ways to learn math? Teach it. Seriously; ask math teachers of all stripes, and they can attest that having to explain an idea to others makes them learn it more soundly than they ever thought possible. This can be a scary strategy to employ when the students don't seem to have mastered a concept yet themselves, but plenty of learning can happen through the teaching process.

Pair students up and have them teach a concept to each other. Be sure to give them the tools to tutor another student even if they’re struggling themselves—for example, using flashcards you have prepared. After 5–10 minutes, have students reverse roles: the tutor becomes the tutee. Not only does this strategy improve math understanding for the tutor; it also bolsters confidence and attitudes about math, to boot!

Strategy 2: Account for Student Strengths

So your student doesn’t like math? Or maybe doesn’t seem to make any progress with the topic you’re teaching? Well, what do they like? Account for the whole student. Ask about their family, hobbies, and entertainment. Maybe there’s a class they particularly love or even a previous math topic that interested them. Look for ways to connect what your students love to the math topic that’s confounding them.

This isn't a simple task for you, the teacher! You may need to research details about your students’ interests and seek out the mathematical connections. It may help to browse our full library of free resources, including math activities that relate to fashion, sports, business, and art, to name a few.

What works for one student may not work for another, and what works for one math topic may not work for another.

Strategy 3: Use Schema-Based Instruction

Word problems can leave students across all grade levels wondering where to even start. The combination of parsing English and manipulating mathematical concepts can be daunting, especially for multilingual learners. One evidence-based strategy is to create a schema, or an underlying blueprint or structure that can apply to a variety of problems. For example, consider the following word problems:

  • Alice has 81 fish that she has to place evenly into 9 buckets. How many fish are in each bucket?
  • Rosario wants to hang 25 artworks into 5 galleries so that every gallery has the same number of artworks. How many artworks go in each gallery?
  • A pet shelter has 18 cat treats that it wants to give out evenly to the 6 cats in the shelter. How many treats will each cat get?

All of these problems can be described using a schema that describes the general concept of division:

  • Total ÷ Groups = Number per group

Once you have a schema, you can refer back to it to help students illustrate problems and adapt new word problems to the same schema. It may help to draw the schemas, create posters for the ones that appear most frequently, or—if your students are ready—see if they can define their own schemas.

Strategy 4: Practice Fact Retrieval

Part of what stops a lot of students from progressing in math is frustration over not knowing and constantly getting stuck on math facts. After all, if you can’t quickly add and multiply, how can you be expected to solve larger problems that rely on those facts?

Modern evidence suggests that math facts should not be the focus of lessons and are improved through general practice. However, some evidence shows that setting aside some time for practicing math facts—around 10 minutes per day—can reap large dividends in terms of confidence in math class and growing in math competency beyond fact fluency. There are endless ways to practice math facts with students, including video games, board and card games, and the strategy that follows: Cover-Copy-Compare.

Strategy 5: Cover-Copy-Compare

This is an intervention that offers a specific evidence-based activity to practice fact retrieval. In preparation, create a worksheet with around 10 math facts. Have the list of sums or products (for example) lined up along one side of the paper. Let students study the facts and, when they’re ready, cover the lined-up numbers and try to recreate the list. When they’re done, compare the list they generated to the original list.

Mark the facts correct or incorrect. If any are incorrect, repeat the procedure of covering, copying, and comparing until all the facts are solved correctly. This task helps create a definable and manageable goal for students—get all of the facts correct—no matter their current math abilities. You can differentiate the task by having students answer orally instead, which has the added benefit of being quicker. This routine improves math accuracy both across general education and special education.

Strategies to Use While Teaching

Try this list of math interventions while giving a lesson, as they can be tools to help individual students—or even full classes!—who seem to be stuck on a problem.

Strategy 6: Employ Metacognitive Strategies

Research has shown time and time again that if you can get students to think critically about their own mathematical thinking, there is an opportunity to grow. On the surface, the problem may seem to be an understanding of math concepts, but the deeper problem may in fact be the students’ mindsets.

Have students pause to reflect on how they feel and what thoughts are crossing their minds. Are they thinking thoughts like “I’ll never get this” or “There’s nothing I can do about it”? Present ways to combat this thinking, such as taking a break, asking for help, or brainstorming a new strategy to try.

Strategy 7: Verbalize Thought Processes

Research shows that the most successful math interventions are explicit and systematic. One way to do that is to verbalize thought processes. In other words, as students think about how to solve a problem, probe them to say what they are thinking aloud. It is important here to listen patiently and without judgment even if their mathematical language is inexact or their reasoning is imperfect. When you hear the full process, it can help you identify specifically how to intervene. Perhaps they understand a larger idea but get stuck on the arithmetic. Or perhaps they understand what a problem is asking but shut down as soon as they encounter a fraction.

It can work the other way, too. As you solve a problem, verbalize your thought process. Let students see the steps you take to work through a problem and model precise mathematical language and reasoning.

Strategy 8: Fast Draw

Fast Draw is a learning strategy devised by Cecil D. Mercer and Susan P. Miller around 30 years ago to help students with learning disabilities in solving math word problems. The letters of Fast Draw are a mnemonic for the steps:

  • Find what you are solving for: Look for the question mark and underline what you are trying to solve for.
  • Ask yourself what information is given: Read the whole problem and look for what information is already provided.
  • Set up the equation: Write the equation with numbers and symbols in the correct order.
  • Tie down the equation: Say out loud what the operation is and what it means. If you can, solve the problem. It may help to draw pictures.
  • Discover the sign. Find the sign and say it out loud.
  • Read the problem. Say the problem out loud.
  • Answer the problem, or draw.
  • Write the answer to the problem.

Here’s a resource from James Madison University that provides details on each step, along with examples. Students struggling in mathematics often become passive when faced with word problems, and Fast Draw offers a concrete strategy that can help them become active and work through word problems on their own. The strategy not only helps bolster math achievement, but math attitudes, too, especially for students with learning disabilities.

Strategy 9: Use Multiple Representations

Multiple representations are important well beyond math intervention. They help students perceive math concepts in different ways and form important generalizations. However, they can serve a more targeted purpose for a student who needs targeted help. Showing math representations in different ways gives students a variety of mental models to consider, making comprehension more likely. In other words, it helps students “see” the math, even when one representation confuses them.

Even concepts that seem simple to you can be complex to your students. Since everybody without visual impairments is a visual learner, lean into multiple visual representations to demystify ideas. But be intentional in which representations you show. If the representations are hard to interpret or come across as disconnected, you risk confusing students more!

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