How can teachers meet the needs of accelerated math students?

One of the most difficult challenges for any math teacher to master is effective differentiation. We worry enough about the students that are fighting to keep up, but at the same time, we keep an eye on our most gifted students. We know we can’t ignore the student in the back corner who is unchallenged and bored. Below, I share some ideas to help our gifted students maximize their potential.

According to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, gifted students are identified as those who are able to solve problems and grasp new concepts with highly unusual speed and accuracy. They are often able to make meaningful connections in class without teacher intervention, and may quickly uncover how to skip steps in a math strategy and still arrive at the correct answer.

When classrooms were less flexible, students were often skipped grades. This led to several problems that we understand better today. Accelerated students found themselves matching their new peers in academics, but not in physical or emotional maturity. Many students also found they were not necessarily ready to jump forward in all subjects. The American math curriculum has been labeled “a mile wide and an inch deep”. We don’t want to give students that each year of math is so shallow that they can coast through or even leap over a whole year of curriculum. If students grasp the basic concepts too quickly, we need to encourage them to dive for that mile, and in today’s classroom, new techniques and technology help teachers and students do just that.

1. Adaptive learning software
We are finally developing adaptive learning software that can determine the skills and readiness of each individual student. This can be immensely helpful for teachers presented with the challenge of instructing a classroom of students with diverse readiness. Software today can determine when a student is answering basic questions quickly and can accelerate them to more challenging ones. But it isn’t just a matter of easy or hard problems. A quality software program can also challenge students to think about familiar problems in new ways. It might ask them to present their answers as both sentences and equations, or determine whether a question is better attempted with mixed fractions, improper fractions or decimals. And all of this can proceed without the direct supervision of the teacher.

2. Independent and group study
A math teacher’s job is more than just transferring skills. Our students need to learn how to think strategically and build meaning on their own. In social studies and science students achieve this by experimenting and researching and reporting their discoveries. They should be encouraged to do the same thing in math. If the student is good at finding shortcuts, they might produce a report on why the shortcut works, and whether or not it is the best strategy for all cases. Teachers can provide students with excellent sources, including websites, books and specialists, and challenge the student to dig deeper into the concept that the class is investigating. Advanced students might work in small groups on these projects. This way, the outcome will be even more thorough, and students will learn how to collaborate and discuss mathematics in a meaningful way.

3. After-school activities
Students might form an afterschool club or math competitive team. Or they might enjoy going on some educational fieldtrips to conferences or museums. Students should learn that math is imbedded in the real world, not just tasks in a classroom. Have them report on the math they find in a science exhibit, or shadow a professional that uses math every day.

Was this article helpful to you? Check out our related white paper, How Adaptive Learning Technology Helps ALL Students Excel in Math.

Joe Trahan

Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa | MEd in Secondary Mathematics from GWU, Washington DC | 6-year teacher of Mathematics in Bethesda, MD