Effective Math: 3 Part Lessons Students Enjoy (and Understand)!

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When it comes to teaching math, 3 part lessons are the #1 tool I credit with my students enjoying math, truly understanding math concepts (NOT just memorizing – and forgetting – procedures) and gaining so much confidence in their thinking skills.

A good 3 part math lesson lets students collaborate to discover the math in a way that makes sense to them. It’s a little noisier than a traditional lesson, and probably messier too, but that’s the cost of all that amazing learning!

I’ve spent years developing a 3 part lesson plan that gets great results and I’m sharing it with you in this post. You can even grab my lesson plan template AND a sample math lesson!

So what does a good math lesson look like?

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What is a 3 part math lesson?

Ironically, an effective three part math lesson is actually a 4 part lesson! You should allow approximately 60 minutes from start to finish when planning for 3 part lessons in math but this varies. It’s also possible to split a lesson up over two days when necessary.

You might have also heard of 3 Act math lessons or 3 phase math lessons. These are all essentially the same thing.

The parts of a 3 part math lesson are Minds On, Action, Consolidation, Practice & Assessment. Consider this the basic outline but be flexible.

  • I will sometimes add in a journal prompt at the end.
  • If it’s clear students haven’t really ‘got it’ yet, skip the assessment question and either plan another lesson for the next day or take a little time to review and practice before moving on.

Save this infographic as a reminder when you plan your lessons!

Infographic to outline the timing, structure, and content of each element of a good 3 part math lesson.

The Power of 3 Part Math Lessons

When I first started, my students would struggle. They were used to their teachers doing all the thinking for them. Teach them a math strategy (whether or not it made sense to them) and then answer a series of questions using that strategy.

You’ve probably heard of “I Do, We Do, You Do”, or scaffolding. And while it has its place, it’s so much more meaningful to let students take ownership, build an understanding of the actual math behind the memorized steps, and learn to become a math thinker.

It takes some time for them to feel confident enough to figure it out themselves and trust their thinking. But it’s so worth it.

Implementing 3 part lessons in math gave my students:

  • better understanding of math concepts
  • stronger communication skills
  • flexible math thinking
  • a higher interest in, and like of, math class
  • more confidence in solving problems themselves

How to Plan a Math 3 Part Lesson

Thoughtful planning is essential for a successful lesson. Unlike a traditional lesson with a worksheet full of practice questions, this entire lesson is centred around just a few questions. This means the questions need to be good!

Another crucial factor in an effective 3-part lesson, is the teacher’s ability to anticipate what students might do, the strategies they might use and the mistakes they might make.

Wondering how do you structure a math lesson? Let’s look at each part of the 3 math part lesson plan in more detail.

Minds On

The Minds On should only take 5 – 10 minutes. It’s purpose is the engage students in some mathematical thinking, get them interested in the day’s topic.

Most importantly though, it needs to activate prior learning. This is what will set students up for a successful ‘Action’ as they will have the tools they need to extent their knowledge and develop strategies and solutions for the new problem.

Don’t focus on the answer. In fact, we often don’t even bother to get to the final answer, or there isn’t one!

What types of activities should I use? An open-ended question, a quick game, a video, a discussion prompt, an image with a question like “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”, a riddle…

There is no right or wrong answer just ensure it sparks a little curiosity and leads naturally into the main learning goal for the day. Ideally, a Minds On activity or question holds back some information to spark some interest and curiosity about the topic.

A few good websites to find Minds On questions are: Estimation 180, Which One Doesn’t Belong?, Same But Different and Would You Rather?.

Minds On question sample for a 3 part math lesson
Teacher at a computer lesson planning with text: 6 key components to an effective math block schedule.


Discover what goes with 3-part lessons to make a complete math block.


A carefully crafted problem is the key to a great action task. It should be tied to a real-world context and have multiple ways to consider and solve.

Students should be exploring, experimenting, struggling and creating their own strategies that make sense to them. The teacher’s role is that of a facilitator. Ask guiding questions, observe their strategies and conversations. Make notes on specific things you want pairs to share with the class.

Allow your students to struggle (to a point of course). This is where they build perseverance and resilience. It’s also where the learning happens. If a group appears to be completely stalled, ask guiding questions and give hints and suggestions but don’t give answers.

I like to partner my students for Action tasks. This gives them someone to discuss and share ideas with but not so many people that they can take a passive role. To this end, I almost always use homogenous groupings so both students are working at a similar pace and complexity level.

Sample action question in a 3 part math lesson.


Come back together as a whole class to discuss and share the strategies and solutions that students developed.

Common strategies for the consolidation part of the lesson include BANSHO and Gallery Walks. These both give students a chance to see and hear their classmates’ work and ask questions to clarify their understanding.

Teachers should choose pairs to share based on different strategies, asking questions to have them expand on their explanations as necessary. This is the perfect time to work on (and assess) students’ communication in math.

Now is the time to address any misconceptions or mistakes so that students solidify their understanding of at least one strategy that works for them.

This is also the time to make connections between different strategies and more traditional algorithms so students can work up to the more ‘efficient’ way to solve problems while understanding the why and how of it.

Consolidation example slide for 3 part math lesson discussion

Practice and Assessment

The fourth part of the three part lesson! Give students 1 or more shorter questions that are based on the same learning goal to answer independently.

This serves two purposes:

  1. Students can put into practice what they’ve learned while it’s fresh in their minds. This will further help to cement their understanding.
  2. As a teacher, I collect this every day to do a quick check of their learning. This is just a formative assessment that usually doesn’t even make it into my gradebook. However, this helps me know if the class is ready to move on or if tI need to change my plan for tomorrow’s lesson. I also use this information to build guided math groups for centres.
Formative assessment in a math 3 part lesson for grade 6

3 Part Lesson Plan Template + 3 Part Math Lesson Plan Example

If you’d like a simple template that you can use time and again to plan your engaging math lessons, add your info below and I’ll send it straight to your inbox.

You’ll find space to record the learning goal, materials you’ll need to prep and space to plan both the student tasks and observation notes.

The 3 part lesson plan template is editable too, so you can customize it to suit your needs!

PLUS, I’ve added a complete 3-part math lesson plan example with teaching slides as a bonus! This lesson is a part of our comprehensive Grade 6 Measurement Unit and focuses on Complementary Angles.

3 part math lesson plan sample pages.

Get your 3 part lesson plan template PLUS sample math lesson straight to your inbox!

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Prioritize Understanding Over Memory

Three part math lessons are my favourite way to teach math. They take a little longer than a traditional lesson but I’ve experienced first hand that students are more engaged and develop a deeper understanding of the content.

Math 3 part lessons reverse the old school ‘top-down’ approach of teaching students a skill and then giving them time to practice it. That has its place but relies too heavily on memory. So what happens when memories fade? Plus, the teacher is doing all the work and the students just get to be sponges!

Have you tried 3 part lessons? I’d love to hear your experiences with them!

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