Co-operative learning and embedded multimedia in primary maths

In the UK there is enormous variation in mathematics performance among pupils and schools, with schools in disadvantaged areas performing poorly.

This project evaluated the effectiveness of the 'PowerTeaching Maths' approach in the upper years of primary school, through a large-scale cluster randomised controlled trial. PowerTeaching Maths, a technology-enhanced teaching approach, was designed to improve performance in all schools, but especially those in deprived areas. It is characterised by co-operative learning in small groups, and the use of embedded multimedia – such as humorous video clips shown on interactive whiteboards.

  • The overall impact of the PowerTeaching Maths approach was essentially zero, with no difference found between the experimental and the control groups (after controlling for pre-test differences). Both groups gained in mathematics achievement, but to the same degree.
  • Analyses for pupils with low, middle, and high attainment in mathematics showed that all gained to about the same degree, regardless of whether they were in the experimental or control group.
  • There were also no significant differences according to schools’ levels of free school meals or how well the teaching approach was implemented.

Over 2,500 pupils in 42 schools took part in the experiment, all in Year 4 or 5. Those assigned to the experimental group were taught using the PowerTeaching Maths approach; those in the control group were taught with their teacher’s usual methods and materials. Pupils were tested before and after the experiment on Optional SATs in mathematics. Teachers also answered questionnaires on how they had implemented PowerTeaching Maths or their usual teaching approach.

Teachers were generally positive about PowerTeaching Maths but some found it difficult to divide their pupils into mixed ability groups rather than the more usual practice of setting within the class. Many did not use or celebrate the team ‘scores’, which are a key part of the approach.

Similar co-operative learning approaches have been more successful in the United States, where differentiation of pupils through setting within classes is less prevalent than in the United Kingdom. 

Although the intervention did not improve attainment, this study shows that randomised trials on a large scale are both possible and valuable when it comes to determining what works in the classroom.