Using a Workshop Approach for Math

Written by Donna Boucher

Donna has been a teacher, math instructional coach, interventionist, and curriculum coordinator. A frequent speaker at state and national conferences, she shares her love for math with a worldwide audience through her website, Math Coach’s Corner. Donna is also the co-author of Guided Math Workshop.

Workshop, not worksheets is my new battle cry. It’s always been my philosophy, but I think it’s so powerful to sum it up in three easy words. Let me explain some reasons why I favor math workshop activities over worksheets.

  • Math workstations are more engaging for students, and higher engagement leads to more meaningful learning.
  • A workshop approach lends itself to more collaboration and communication among students.
  • Workshop activities can be more easily reused than worksheets.  Most worksheets are one and done. With well-planned workstation activities, students can often do the same activity many times with different results each time.
  • Materials, such as cards, designed for workstation activities can often serve multiple purposes.
  • Workstation activities can often be easily differentiated.

Side note–when you are choosing workstation activities, be sure to think about ease of prep for you.  You don’t want to spend 4 hours cutting the materials for a workstation activity.

Here’s my brand new 3M laminator!  I found a great deal on laminating sheets. I laminate my pages BEFORE cutting the cards apart.
My activity cards always go out the margins so you can easily cut them with your paper cutter.

Let’s take a look inside my There’s Nothing Alien About Multiplication unit to illustrate some of the benefits of workstation activities.

Games Increase Engagement and Offer Flexibility

As I mentioned above, worksheets are typically good for one use only. Let’s say that you want students to practice multiplication facts–something you will want them to do over and over. Games will offer flexibility and hold their interest.

This game is called Stars and Groups. It consists of a game board and two decks of cards.  Students choose a groups card and a stars card, find the product and mark a space on the board. You can use something like two-color counters or have students use dry erase markers. The first player to get four in a row wins. I’m sure you can see how this game could be played many times and students would probably not get tired of it. Notice that the cards are partially representational because of the star pictures. If students need additional support, you could have them draw the four groups and put 5 stars in each group, perhaps in their math journal (which adds a measure of accountability).

I love games that can pull double duty. That is, games that are designed for whole group, but work well in workstations as well. A great example is Scoot. Scoot is typically played as a whole class activity, but it’s perfect as a workstation activity. Here, I’ve laminated the student recording sheet, but you could also have students record their answers in their math journal by simple numbering the paper.  Differentiate the activity by assigning certain card numbers to different students.


I love spinner games!  All you need is the game board and a paper clip.  These spinner games even have the instructions printed right on the card!  Click here to download the x5/x10 game for free!

Think Outside the Box

You can get even more mileage out of workstation activities if you think of ways to use the cards that come with the activities in different ways. For example, the card below is part of the set used for the scoot game. There are 36 different cards showing arrays.

Here, I’m showing how the cards could be used in small group instruction to explore the distributive property. The card is laminated, so students can write on it with a dry erase marker.

How about putting the cards in a workstation and having the students write story problems to match the multiplication problem? I’m sure you can think of even more uses.

So start the new school year with a new commitment to math workshop!


  1. Mona

    I completely agree with your thoughts on the work station activities. I scan the room while I work with a small group and see the students engaged when working at stations. Most of my students prefer working with a partner. I have more students on task and fewer behavior issues during work station time.

    First Grade Schoolhouse

    • Donna Boucher

      Exactly, Mona! As long as you teach your expectations and consistently reinforce them, math workshop can be a thing of beauty! 🙂

  2. TheElementary MathManiac

    Great presentation of the benefits of workshop over worksheets!

    The Math Maniac

    • Donna Boucher

      Thanks, Tara!

  3. sfmuellr

    Another great post! Just wanted to say thank you so much for all the ideas and products you share. I’ve purchased many of your activities and they worked great in my small group math classes. I always look forward to your posts. Thank you!

    • Donna Boucher

      Thanks so much! It’s always nice to hear that my work is having a positive impact on teaching and learning. 🙂

  4. Fontenot's Firebreathers

    If I have taught the expectations and still have a few that will not do it. What are your suggestions because I have 4-6 in each rotation that will not stay on task and I am frustrated.

    • Donna Boucher

      Have you tried removing a student from workshop until they can follow the expectations? I read somewhere (not sure where…) to put a student having trouble at a desk close to your small group instruction table with pencil and paper work to do. By placing them so close, not only can you keep the student under your watchful eye, but they will likely eavesdrop on your small group instruction and learn some math in the process!! Students will NOT want to do pencil and paper work in place of workshop activities, so it can be a powerful incentive to shape up once they see you mean business.

  5. Lisa McNitt

    Is there a good book that will give me the games/activities to use in a math workshop? Ones that are based on Common Core? I am also interested in any professional books I could read to learn how to implement and use the math workshop in my 3rd grade classroom.


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