Small Group Learning Theories

Small Group Instruction: An Option for Reducing Math Anxiety

Teacher-Author: Sherry A. Johnson

Kids Talk 1

Collaborating helps to reduce math anxiety.

Math anxiety, the intense feeling of nervousness, apprehension, unease or tension associated with mathematics that interferes with an individual’s ability and willingness to engage in and to perform mathematically related tasks (Geist, 2015) is a reality in elementary classrooms. Geist (2010) asserts that math anxiety may have started before a child enters kindergarten. Scarpello (2007) and Geist (2015) are in agreement that math anxiety may be compounded in elementary grades due to teachers’ focus on mathematical prowess demonstrated through students’ ability to perform high risk computational tasks at the expense of children’s natural thinking process. Teachers have been using various instructional strategies to help reduce math anxiety. According to Sloane (2007) and Fuchs, Fuchs, Craddock, Hollenbeck, Hamlett and Schatschneider, (2008), small group instruction is one of the instructional strategies that teachers are using to help students to engage in meaningful mathematics discourse and by so doing reduce math anxiety.

Small Group Instruction in Mathematics is grounded in Theories

There are two types of small group instructions used in the mathematics classroom – teacher directed and students led (Leikin & Zaslavsky, 1999). When teachers direct small group instruction, the teacher meets with three to five students and teach or review a concept. The second type of small group instruction, involves recognizing students’ strengths and using them as peer tutors in which students are teaching each other concepts. Recognizing and utilizing students’ strengths allow students to satisfy their self-esteem needs and feel a sense of belonging based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Gredler, 2009) especially when they are allowed to use their strengths to work collaboratively with their peers in cooperative learning groups and are active participates in their learning.


Cooperative learning groups give students the opportunity to direct their own learning (Leikin & Zaslavsky, 1999) and make the process more meaningful because they get the opportunity to interact and share with their friends while learning (Zakaria, Solfitri, Daud, & Abidin, 2013). Constructivism theorists Dewey, Bruner Von Glaserfeld and Freire are in agreement that learning is more effective when students are allowed to build upon existing schema and are actively constructing meaning based on their experiences (Bruner 1966; Martinez, 2010). Cooperative learning groups allow students to explore mathematics concepts surrounded by their peers, engage in dialogue, construct meaning about abstract concepts and by extension diminish math anxiety in the process because they are developing both cognitively and affectively regarding mathematics while they work face to face with each other (Zakaria, et. al, 2013).

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theorists, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bandura declare that learning takes place in stages and students should be given materials that are age appropriate during the learning process (Martinez, 2010). During cooperative learning, the materials are differentiated based on students’ needs and the concepts being explored. In addition, students are heterogeneously or homogenously grouped so that students who are in need of additional support may gain insights from the interaction with higher achieving students during heterogeneous grouping and higher achieving students may still get their needs met for challenge and deeper reflection by working with their ability groups (Leikin & Zaslavsky, 1999).

Enhancing Cooperative Learning Groups through Theory Applications

According to Piaget (1976), when there is a discrepancy between what we already know and something new, our brain experiences a state of disequilibrium and we are driven to eliminate it in order to achieve equilibrium once more. Cooperative learning groups when properly implemented can provide the scaffolding needed to create disequilibrium and to eliminate it through the materials provided.

When teachers effectively plan for cooperative learning groups, the materials will be at the students’ comprehension level so that students can read the direction and follow through with the assignment with little or no teacher support (Shimazoe & Al-drich, 2010). If this step is taken then cooperative learning groups will satisfy Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Martinez, 2010) and Bandura’s (1977) parameter for learning which involves the development of self-efficacy. When students successfully collaborate to solve problems while working within their cooperative learning groups, they gain confidence in their abilities develop a sense of enjoyment derived from their success and working with their peers (Shimazoe & Al-drich, 2010), which displaces math anxiety.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological   Review, 84, 191-215. doi: 10.1037/0033-295x.84.2.191

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Geist, E. (2015). Math anxiety and the “math gap”: How attitudes toward mathematics disadvantages students as early as preschool. Education, 135(3), 328-336.

Gredler, M.E. (2009). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Pearson.

Leikin, R., & Zaslavsky, O. (1999). Cooperative learning in mathematics. The Mathematics Teacher, 92(3), 240-246. Retrieved from

Martinez, M.E. (2010). Learning and cognition: The design of the mind. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Piaget, J. (1976). Piaget and his school. Springer-Verlag New York Inc.

Scarpello, G. (2007). Helping students get past math anxiety. Techniques: Connecting Education & Careers, 82 (6). 34-35.

Shimazoe, J., & Aldrich, H. (2010). Group can be gratifying: Under-standing and overcoming resistance to cooperative learning. College Teaching, 58, 52-57. doi:10.1080/87567550903418594

Zakaria, E., Solfitri, T., Daud, Y., & Abidin, Z. Z. (2013). Effect of cooperative learning on secondary school students’ mathematics achievement. Creative Education, 4(2), 98-100. Retrieved from