Teamwork Plus Individualized Approach Improves Math Learning

By Susan Walton — August 24, 1983 6 min read
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A mathematics program that combines the positive effects of teamwork with the benefits of programmed individual instruction is gaining high marks from students and teachers.

The program, called Team-Assisted Individualization (TAI), was developed by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools. A report that summarizes three studies of the program, issued this summer, indicates that students who participated improved more than a control group on several counts--achievement, and in their attitudes toward mathematics and toward mainstreamed, academically handicapped students.

The studies examined the program’s effects on about 2,000 students in grades 3 through 6, who came from racially mixed school systems. Three as-yet unpublished studies offer additional evidence of the program’s success, according to Hopkins researchers.

The program’s structure includes elements of both cooperative learning, in which students help one another, and individualized instruction, which allows each student to work at his own pace, according to Robert E. Slavin, a research scientist with the center who directs the project.

It is this combination of instruction methods that makes the program, if not unique, highly unusual, Mr. Slavin said. Program materials begin with 3rd-grade math, and continue through beginning algebra.

Students, not the teacher, have responsibility for checking the answers, handling the “management,” and “routing” themselves on to the next unit. As a result, teachers can spend more time working with small groups of students who are at about the same level of skill.

“When we began [in 1980], the problem we were taking on was to find a method that would work in a heterogeneous classroom,” Mr. Slavin said. “Our particular concern was with mainstreamed classes, [how to give students with learning impairments] instruction at their own level but still involve them with other kids.”

The researchers turned to previous studies--including their own--to see what structure might best suit the students both socially and academically.

The research on group learning showed that students with learning disabilities were accepted well by other students. But their more complex instructional needs seemingly posed a problem in the researchers’ search for classroom methods suited to a mixed group of students.

The students’ disabilities required that they have individualized plans, but individualized instruction for all students is generally viewed as more trouble than it is worth, Mr. Slavin said. The plans demand more work from the teachers, and offer no incentive for students to try to plough through many units.

With previous individualized plans, the “greatest difficulty was with management, trying to check kids’ work, and the inability of the teacher to provide direct instruction because the teacher was spending all the time on mechanics.” But research on learning also has shown that direct instruction is an important part of learning, Mr. Slavin said.

“So we thought that what we could do was go back to the idea of trying to meet students where they are, but solve the problems we saw as characteristic of individual programs,” he noted.

The approach that resulted, the TAI, is now being used in a number of school sys-tems around the country, Mr. Slavin said. Some participated in studies of the program’s effectiveness; others heard about it through an informal network of people interested in cooperative learning. The districts supplant their old mathematics books with materials developed by the Hopkins researchers, who found that existing individualized-instruction programs were outdated.

Initially, students are divided into groups that include students of varying levels of ability and achievement. Students are responsible for checking one another’s work and for deciding themselves when they have successfully completed one topic and are ready to move on to another. As a team, they are rewarded by their overall progress, regardless of the students’ individual levels of skill.

Because their progress indicates their level of ability, they are assigned to another group, this one putting students in clusters according to their level of skill. Together with other students who are at about the same level, these students work with the teacher.

The combined approach offers several advantages, Mr. Slavin said. Shifting the responsibility for checking from teacher to students frees the teacher to spend more time working with the groups. It also gives students an incentive to do well as a team and as individuals.

The system provides “structured peer encouragement,” Mr. Slavin said; everything the students do contributes to their team score. “You get kids who are very motivated to work on individual programs. You have kids who may not have been successful before who start to get successful at their level and also get encouragement from their peers. That’s very important for these kids. They don’t often get academic recognition from their peers.”

“We found enormous effects [on students’ attitudes]--kids trying to sneak in and work on math after class, and kids wanting to do math all day,” Mr. Slavin said. “It’s exciting to have material you can succeed at and to get recognition for doing it.”

In racially mixed classrooms, the studies found, the team approach also had a positive effect on friendships between students of different races.

Teachers’ reactions have been very positive as well, Mr. Slavin said. “A number of things make it very attractive to teachers, besides the obvious fact that kids enjoy it. Teachers often express frustration with their inability to deal with [a] wide range of kids. The teachers particularly enjoy the opportunity to work with kids who are really ready for the instruction. They don’t have to deal with those who don’t get division because they never understood subtraction. This is a problem that teachers wrestle with all the time.”

The researchers have modified the program slightly as they worked on it, partly in response to the problems reported by those who used it initially.

“Early on, we found a difficulty [in] getting teachers to integrate teaching groups with individual work. In the first studies, we left that too much to the teachers’ ability to see where all 30 kids were, then pull out the groups [that were ready to work on a particular topic]. That turned out to be too much for the teacher, so we changed the procedures to make that more routine, less finely tuned.” Now, a group that began working together on, for example, decimals would stay together until the students’ performance changed significantly. As their performance changed, they change teaching groups.

“Still, integrating the individual program with the teaching groups is a continuing problem,” Mr. Slavin said. “When things go wrong, it’s often along that line. That’s something we’re continuing to wrestle with.” The center offers training for teachers who are starting to use TAI

The other problem that schools report is the product of success: “We routinely get 6th graders who finish our algebra sequence,” Mr. Slavin said.

The sequence is not a full algebra course, but its content goes far beyond regular 6th-grade math, he added. “At all levels, kids move very rapidly. The low kids get up to grade level; the high kids take off.”

“One of the biggest problems we have is that teachers can’t believe that kids can take as much responsibility as we say they can,” Mr. Slavin said. “We’ve found in every case that if you trust the kids, they can take care of it. If you don’t, you’re in big trouble because there’s just too much for a teacher, even a superhuman teacher, to do.”

“The instructional methods have to simultaneously deal with appropriate levels of instruction, with the quality of instruction, with incentive, and with time,” Mr. Slavin said.

“And if you don’t deal with any one of those, you’re not likely to have a positive effect,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 1983 edition of Education Week as Teamwork Plus Individualized Approach Improves Math Learning


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