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Do This, Not That: Structuring Math Workshop

Whether you are just getting started with a workshop approach to math or you have already implemented your own version, I have some tips for structuring math workshop to maximize the benefits. This post is the first in a series of three, so stay tuned for more!

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Many teachers, frustrated with the limitations of whole-group math instruction, are moving to a guided math or workshop approach to teaching math. In this structure, teachers provide increasingly more instruction in a small group setting, while students work independently in workstations. The chart below shows what the transition might look like as a teacher moves from a traditional structure on the left, to one utilizing a shorter daily mini-lesson, and finally to a situation where most first-line instruction takes place in small group. Note that as you move away from whole-group instruction, students are spending increasingly longer amounts of time working independently. In fact, they might be spending the bulk of their math instructional block working in workstations. Think about the implications of that statement. If we don’t carefully plan our workstation tasks, that time is largely wasted.


Define a purpose for each math workshop station and incorporate process standards.

Often, the tasks that are used in math workstations focus only on content standards. It’s important that we remember that the process standards, defined by NCTM, “highlight ways of acquiring and using content knowledge.” As depicted in this graphic, they are an umbrella over the content standards. When we designate specific purposes for our workstations, it not only ensures that we include the process standards, but it also actually makes planning easier.

Integrate technology into workstations

Often, technology is used as a standalone station–one of the rotations is the “technology” station. As a result, digital devices are often used for low-level practice. Now, I’m not saying that apps don’t provide engaging practice or that the practice isn’t needed. I’m just saying that students should be doing more with technology than just using it as glorified flashcards. By integrating technology into workstations, it can be used by students to create, rather than just consume. More on that in the next post in this series.

Take the teacher out of the rotation

Many workshop models include the teacher as one of the rotations. This can be limiting in a couple of important ways.

  • It determines your group size. You want roughly equal groups rotating through your stations, so the students at your teacher table may not all have the same instructional needs. For example, say that your small group lesson is on place value, You may have two students in the class with significant gaps in place value understanding and three students that are extremely confident with that skill. But your class is 24 students, so you have four groups of six rotating. That means that you will have to group those two low students together with four other students with different needs, just to even out the groups. The same with the high kids. That really undermines the whole purpose for small group instruction.
  • It forces you to have homogeneous (similar ability) groups in your workstations. Because you want the students at your teacher table to have the same instructional needs, they also have to be in the same group for independent workstation groups–because you are one of the stations they rotate through. This gives you no flexibility to decide which students work well together and which don’t and compose your groups accordingly. It also means that your students never have the opportunity to work with students of different abilities.
  • It dictates the time you spend with each group. Because you are part of the rotation, each group gets exactly the same amount of time, whether they need it or not. By taking yourself out of the equation, you can pull groups for exactly the amount of time they need.

Fine-tuning your workshop model

There are many models for structuring math workshop. A very common one circulating right now is based on the acronym MATH. There are variations for what the letters stand for, but a widely-used version is Meet with teacher, At my seat, Technology, and Hands on. I would like to offer the variation, pictured below. Notice, first, that the teacher is no longer one of the rotations. Now the groups in the workstations can be heterogeneous, allowing more flexibility when creating groups. While the students are in workshop, the teacher pulls students as needed to the teacher table. So if she wants to pull two students, she does. The groups coming to the teacher table can be different sizes and can stay for different amounts of time. Next, the technology rotation is gone. Technology can be integrated into any of the workstations. Apps can be used in the H station to practice facts, but can also be used in the A or T stations for more creative purposes. Finally, do you see that the process standards are embedded in the structure? The A station focuses on problem-solving and thought-provoking problems. The T station is all about communication.

In our book, Guided Math Workshop, Laney Sammons and I included our own version of a workstation structure called GUIDE. It includes five stations, rather than four, but includes all of the principles I outlined above. You can download the cute letters for GUIDE here.


Regardless of the structure you use, remember that a few simple tweaks can pack a big punch. I would love to hear your comments about how you structure your math workshop! Read the second post in this series here.

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  1. I love math work stations but need advice on taking out the teacher time…when do you introduce, teach the new concept or standard if the teacher is not part of the rotations.

    1. Either it is done in the mini-lesson (see the graphic) or all first-line instruction is done in small groups. So while the students are working in workstations, the teacher pulls small groups of students and teaches the new concepts at a level appropriate for the groups. Of course this is totally flexible! Teachers can choose to mix-and-match the structures, choosing to do a mini-lesson on one day and going straight to workstations with no mini-lesson the next.

    2. Do you have suggestions for what to grade during station time? Would it just be a daily participation grade? I’m thinking about pulling students from different stations, so students might not finish all of the same assignments.

      1. I prefer to think of assessment as formative, that which informs instruction, but I realize that grades are a practical matter. You just want to make sure that whatever you grade accurately reflects their mastery of the content. So if you use a participation grade, it should account for only a small percentage of their overall grade, or a student with large gaps might end up with an inflated grade due to high participation. You can pick and choose what tasks to grade, and some stations lend themselves more to having graded material than others. Remember also that you can be very flexible with the structure. You might have a class quiz over material on Friday in place of some of your workstation time.

  2. I like taking the teacher out of the station rotation. I am curious as to what the developing fluency station might look like. I teach 3rd grade.

    1. That workstation would contain games and tasks to promote computational fluency. So, initially in 3rd grade, students might be practicing addition and subtraction facts. Once multiplication is introduced, games and tasks related to multiplication can be added. So often fact practice is something that we don’t make time for on a consistent basis during the school day, and learning facts takes times and practice! It’s often pushed off on home, where some students have support and others don’t. Tasks for multi-digit computation can also be included in this workstation, but be sure to make plenty of time for practicing facts.

  3. Donna,
    Thanks for this precise and concise overview. Love the graphic reminder about process skills as well as the graphic on moving towards a Guided Math approach.

  4. I can really wrap my head around the idea of removing the teacher out of the rotations. It had never occurred to me as an option. I do have a few questions:
    1. Do you suggest students spend a set amount of time at each station each day?
    2. Do students rotate through all work stations each week?
    3. What data do you collect to help you determine student needs for each unit? Are you utilizing a pretext or a larger piece of data like NWEA MAPs that can provide data?
    Thank you so much for all the information:)

    1. Laney and I designed GUIDE so students visit one workstation each day. There are multiple tasks in each workstation, but it also gives you the flexibility to include a task that might require more time. Whether or not students visit all the workstations in a week depends on your schedule. I prefer brief Tickets In to determine groups.

        1. Honestly, it’s pretty much the same thing. Because I’m giving it as a pre-assessment, I just think of it as an “in” instead of an “out”.

  5. I like the idea of removing the teacher station. However, I would be worried about students being upset about “missing” a station since they are “pulled” from it to work with the teacher. Especially a particularly fun one. What are your thoughts on this? I currently run my workshop with heterogeneous groups (6 groups of 4) and support my weaker students much more than my stronger students within each group when they come to see me. I can often differentiate the task at the teacher station for each student depending on their level. But it isn’t always perfect. Wondering your thoughts.

    1. I totally understand your concerns! We designed GUIDE so that students would stay in one workstation each day. That way they still get to work in the workstation even if they are pulled, because they wouldn’t be pulled for the entire time. You need to do what works for you, but I prefer to have homogeneous groups at my teacher table.

      1. When you pull your groups from the station, are you working on “on topic” skills or review? When do students work on “on topic” skills during math workshop if the teacher isn’t seeing all students in one day?

        1. Thank you for the question! Honestly, it could be either. Primarily, the small group instruction is for the current skill, delivered in a way that meets the needs of each group. That said, small group instruction can also be used for remediation of prior skills that students still haven’t mastered or for extension. It can look different each day if you want, because it’s very flexible. As for practice, typically they would be practicing current skills once I’ve worked with them in small group enough to feel certain that they are practicing correctly. That might mean the practice is pushed into the next week. It’s just a different way of thinking to divorce the immediate practice from the lesson, but the last thing I want is for them to practice incorrectly.

    1. The focus is on mathematical communication, so it could be vocabulary tasks, writing, justification. Partners could video each other explaining a strategy. Lots of things!!

  6. I use more of an “agenda” format in which my students complete work listed on the agenda before moving on to the next. Technology is included on the daily agenda. I pull students in homogeneous groups based on data from previous DOLS or assessments.

  7. I love the idea of heterogeneous groups, but how would I support the higher/lower students in each group? I would be afraid that the higher student would always take over the task at hand or the lower student would not try as hard and would just let the higher student do all the work. By the way, I absolutely love the idea of only one workstation a day!

    1. The first step is forming your groups thoughtfully. You might not pair the lowest students with the highest, for example. Also think about character traits when forming groups. A shy student might not do well in a group of three other very outspoken students.

  8. I used a guided math approach last year and I was one of the rotations. I only have about an hour for math and my last group always seemed to be very rushed. It was my “above level” group, so it was mostly a check in to make sure the understood, but rarely had time to go beyond the standard. How much time do you recommend for a math block in first grade?

    1. Ideally, at least 90 minutes, but I know that is often not the case. Try flipping the order and pull your high kiddos first and your students needing the most support last. Also, if you try taking yourself out of the rotation, you’ll have more flexibility.

  9. I have tried a variety of approaches to math workshop over the years and have not been satisfied with any of the ones I’ve tried. I find that what I’ve done looks and feels like stations that tend to keep kids busy and me trying to come up with activities for the kids to do so that I can teach a small group. I would like my math workshop to go the way I do reading and writing workshop and, to be honest, I haven’t taken enough time to work this through in my head. Still a project on my to-do list. I have been reading on social media about changing the traditional I Do-We Do-You Do model on its head into You Do-We Do-I Do. This makes more sense to me in math. I can’t yet visualize how this could be combined with a workshop approach. Any thoughts?

    1. love the You Do-We Do-I Do model. Kids’ stamina and persistence needs to be developed for that to be successful. It would make math engaging if students worked think-pair-share style to construct meaning and apply prior knowledge.

  10. Great ideas! I love taking the teacher rotation out! That is brilliant. Can you give me a sample of a 90 min math block for second grade using the whole group mini lesson model? What about the workbooks and curriculum my district has. How much paper/pencil is too much? Where do all of your work stations come from? And how to you track where everyone is at? Thank you! Love your blog!

    1. Jennifer, all great questions!! The schedule is completely flexible and may not look the same from day to day. You are also the best judge of how closely you have to follow your district’s curriculum. Some districts allow more flexibility than others. I am always looking for ways to limit worksheets. I firmly believe we can find more engaging and meaningful ways to provide the practice students need. I’m working on a couple more posts in this series, and they will provide info on workstations. In the meantime, look around on my blog and you will find a lot of additional info on the topics you’re interested in.

  11. I’m totally new to the worship or guided math concept. I’ve been a while group-independent work-read when done kind of teacher for a few years and want to change. Question: my blocks are only 45 mins long for math. How would you do this for that timeframe and do you do it everyday?

    1. I’m going to be honest–that is a really short block. What is your grade level? Is that time mandated, or can you stretch it? You could still pull it off by restricting it to a mini-lesson, no more than 15 minutes, leaving 30 minutes each day for math workshop.

      1. I teach 6th. I usually do a mini-lesson; just teach the topic that’s next in the sequence for a content area. Then, I release the students work on a problem set. It’s a very short period of time.

        1. I, too, teach 6th with 45 minute blocks. I’m thinking with our rotating schedule, perhaps days 1 and 4 have mini lessons and practice. and 2,3,5 and 6 have workshop with Guided Math? Thoughts?

          1. The framework is so flexible that you can tailor it to your needs! I think you have mini lessons when you need them. I don’t think you necessarily need to decide on certain days to have them.

    1. I wish I had one to share with you! You might look for colleagues at your school or in your district that are using the approach and visit their classroom. That would also allow you to talk to the teacher about what goes into setting up math workshop successfully.

  12. What does the Expressing Mathematical ideas look like in a 1st grade classroom? I have approximately 1hr for guided math each day. Is that too long for firsties to be at the stations? I love the idea of them only going to one station each day.

    1. If they are actually in stations for one hour, then you certainly have the flexibility to have them go to two stations, rather than one. That’s the beauty of the framework! The E workstation includes tasks relating to communicating about math. It could be vocabulary activities, writing and illustrating their own word problems, or justifying their solution for a problem as a few examples. Also, if you have access to technology, students can explain their thinking (oral communication) in a recording using an app like Seesaw.

  13. Howdy. I’m trying to help my math teachers with workshop – it is the new instructional model for middle school grade level and pre-AP. However, the classes are NOT blocked. They get 45 minutes per day. The scope and sequence has not been aligned (yet) to the workshop model and my teachers are drowning. What can you recommend? I want to help make this easier for them.

    1. Forty-five minute blocks are tough, but doable. I’m not sure what workshop model you’re using–the term is used loosely and has many meanings–but I would suggest a short, no longer than 15 minute, mini-lesson followed by students working on workstation tasks while the teacher pulls small groups for instruction. Teachers are going to have to be laser focused and really model and be consistent with expectations.

  14. I love the thought of the workstation and allowing students to work independently with the math concept. Encouraging that deeper level of learning and thinking in ways that they feel comfortable.

  15. I love the idea of taking the teacher out of the rotations, but am having difficulty picturing exactly how that would work, especially if I’m looking to create heterogeneous workstation groups more often. How would one student who is meeting with me then join students in his/her workstation group who haven’t met with me yet that day?
    Do any of your books give different examples of a daily schedule or routine?

    1. One last question: If I am required to use Go Math and we have a 60 minute math block, would you suggest I do one station per day? Is that even doable?

      1. The structure is very flexible! You can do a mini-lesson based on the Go Math lesson and then use the remainder of the time to pull groups.

    2. Yes, the book explains how the rotation would work. The workstations tasks aren’t dependent on what they do with you, so it doesn’t matter if they leave and then return to the group.

  16. Thank you for the ideas for the math workshops! I have wondered how to create different ideas for my future classroom.

  17. In my experience it is important to integrate technology throughout my math workshop. I have found that when it is only used at one station students view it as a task and don’t see it as a tool to aid in their learning. Taking the teacher out of the rotations is a great idea. It allows for more time to pull groups of students who need the extra support and eliminates meeting with students who do not need help on the current topic. I have students who I know I need to meet with daily and may not need to meet with for a few days. Do you make sure to meet with all your students over a certain amount of time or is it strictly based on need?

    1. There is a lot of flexibility with the amount of time spent with groups as well as frequency. You definitely want to make sure all students are getting touchpoints. A lot depends on if you are using small-group lessons for first teach or just using small groups for remediation/extension.

  18. We just started using Eureka Math at our school. As with all “basal” programs, there are worksheets for each lesson that “must be done.” There is also an Exit Ticket for each lesson. My question is this: rather than teaching the day’s lesson to the whole group, I would teach it to small, homogeneous groups, correct? Then, would the worksheets for that day’s lesson become work at a station/center on the following day?

    1. Yes, you could teach the lesson in small group, providing necessary support or challenges. The worksheets could be used as a workstation, but not necessarily the next day. You want to make sure that when students are practicing independently, they know the material well enough to not practice incorrectly.

  19. I have some teachers who would benefit from the idea of “removing the teacher” from the rotations. Our math block is only 60 minutes and our teachers are constantly working on perfecting the flow of the rotations and math stations. Also, there is so much to learn from simply reading through the comments and your detailed response.

    1. I have had many teachers tell me that removing themselves from the rotation is a game changer! It can be challenging, but well worth it.

  20. Hi! I have always used heterogeneous groups and as the teacher I am never a rotation or a group. From K-5 I have done this. However, I do believe there is a need for whole group math with high, rigorous or rich math tasks with students working in pairs or threes. I really do not want my teachers to teach the same skill 4 or 5 times to each small group. If they are going to do that, then they should use whole group. There is so much value when students collaborate! I am also a firm believer in random grouping so students believe that they can work with anyone. It’s more like the real world.

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