“Drill and kill” — practicing math skills taught by the teacher — works best for struggling first graders, concludes a new study. Yet teachers with the most math-challenged students are the most likely to use ineffective “student-centered” strategies, researcher George Farkas, a UC Irvine education professor, found.
. . . “routine practice or drill, math worksheets, problems from textbooks and math on the chalkboard appear to be most effective, probably because they increase the automaticity of arithmetic. It may be like finger exercises on the piano or ‘sounding out’ words in reading. Foundational skills need to be routinized so that the mind is free to think.”
Hands-on activities that use manipulations, calculators, movement and music may be fun, but they don’t improve first graders’ achievement, according to Farkas. It takes a teacher explicitly teaching facts, skills and concepts with plenty of time for practice.
“Teacher-directed instruction also is linked to gains in children without a history of math trouble,” writes Maureen Downey. “But unlike their math-challenged counterparts, they can benefit from some types of student-centered instruction as well – such as working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving real-life math.”
A friend who teaches in a Title 1 school lamented that her students didn’t do as well in the math CRCT as the classroom next door where the teacher used worksheets all the time. My friend’s classroom was a beehive of fun activities around math, but the worksheet class continually outperformed hers.
The study was published online in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.