Published On: Monday, March 4, 2024|Categories: Learning Environment, Learning Strategies|

For some people, the very mention of the word “math” fills them with anxiety. Even though math is a necessary skill that is used throughout life, many adults feel frustrated and anxious when presented with a situation that calls for mathematical reasoning. In fact, there is even a term for this fear — “math anxiety”– and it’s surprisingly common. Often, math anxiety in adults ties to their childhood school experience in math class. For the vast majority, their childhood math classes took place in the traditional “whole group” instruction set; that is, every student — regardless of ability level — was taught at the same time, in the same way.

The Problem With Whole Group Settings

First of all, what is meant by teaching in a whole group setting? Typically, during this style of teaching, the teacher is at the front of the classroom delivering direct instruction to the entire class. While whole group teaching does have its place in education, it can result in a range of issues, particularly when delivering math instruction. Consider the following reasons why many students struggle to learn math in a group setting:

  • Competitive Atmosphere. In any given classroom, there is a wide range of mathematical abilities present. Some students struggle to grasp basic concepts while others are ready to be enriched and learn more. Often, whole group teaching breeds a competitive atmosphere. There, students who are struggling might feel “less than” their counterparts who excel in math. These students also might be less likely to ask questions when they don’t understand a concept, fearing that their classmates will look down on them or that they’ll be ridiculed. The result is that these students fall further behind and start to see themselves as simply not good at math.
  • Inability to Address Achievement Gaps. When teaching in a whole group setting, it’s virtually impossible for a teacher to meet the individual needs of 20-something students in the classroom. Because of this, some students will continue to move forward while others plateau or fall behind, widening mathematical achievement gaps.
  • Classroom Distractions. When an entire class is sitting together listening to a geometry lesson, inevitably there will be distractions. Students will often disengage and zone out, missing entire portions of a lesson. The teacher might have to stop instruction several times to get the class back on track. Thus, resulting in less cohesive instruction.

The Benefits of Small Group Instruction

Increasingly, many teachers are turning to small group instruction to individualize math lessons. Small group instruction typically involves the teacher meeting with 2-5 students at a time to enrich, remediate, or reinforce a lesson. So, what are the benefits of this style of teaching?

  • Confidence Boosting. When students are learning in a small group, they are less likely to feel intimidated by their classmates. Because of this, they are more likely to speak up and ask questions when they are unsure about a concept. Even students who typically find math challenging can feel successful in a small group setting.
  • Teacher Differentiation. Perhaps the biggest benefit of small group instruction is the ability of the teacher to differentiate instruction depending on the needs of the students in the group. If the teacher is meeting with a group who grasped the day’s math concept easily, then enrichment can be provided to challenge those students. Alternatively, if the teacher is meeting with a small group who struggled with the lesson, the teacher can get a closer look at where individual difficulties lie and provide appropriate remediation.
  • Engaging Lessons. Often, small group instruction lends itself to more engaging lessons than whole group teaching. For example, in a small group setting, a teacher might be more likely to pass out manipulatives to reinforce a concept with a hands-on experience. Small group settings are also ideal for math games and delving deeper into concepts through discussions.


As more teachers recognize the benefits of small group instruction for math, perhaps “math anxiety” can become a thing of the past. If you would like to learn more about math instruction at The Tenney School, please contact us today.

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