Teaching Strategies to Empower Students

How do we help our students to see the big picture – to think around a question or math problem, to visualize it from different angles? How can we round out the learning experience for kids of all abilities?

One powerful strategy to accomplish this is by giving students a choice in how they answer questions or solve problems.

The classic definition of this teaching method is “differentiated instruction,” yet it is really a way to empower students, and challenge them, without taking much more time than it would to teach the material in a more straightforward way.

Offering differentiated instruction – giving students choices in problem-solving – enables them to think about a bigger picture even when working on one tiny little piece of a day’s instruction.

enrichment activitiesNational Council of Teachers of Mathematics speaker Marian Small gave some great examples of this method in a presentation I attended a few years ago. For example, when teaching third-grade math, an instructor can simply give the answer first, writing the number “42” on the blackboard. Then, let the students come up with ways to reach the answer.

One student might say, “Okay, 42 plus 0 equals 42.” Another one, depending on their grade and learning level, may say, “7 times 6.” And a third student may say, “That’s how old my mom is!” Three students, three different ways to arrive at the answer.

Even more importantly, as Ms. Small points out, you learn something about each of those students based on the way they approach the answer. It even helps when a student gives an explanation that would result in a wrong answer – this kind of exercise can help identify if a student needs more help with the problem or concept. And sometimes those replies open up more questions from both the students and the teacher.

Differentiated instruction can be used with students of all abilities. Yes, in some cases a teacher has to prompt the kids to help them connect the answer with their observations and solutions. Even then, students can come up with some interesting and compelling solutions – and best of all, they’re engaged in the learning process.

Ways to differentiate instruction:

  • Give students a choice in how they respond to a question by putting up the answer and prompting them to find their own path to that answer.
  • Give students a choice of which question(s) to answer. For example, on a test, give instructions that students can pick 3 out of 4 questions to answer.
  • Review three different problems and give students a choice of which problem to answer, and the way they want to answer it (working as a group, with a partner, or on their own).

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