Drill and skill

“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.

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  1. This is the way I learned math until the time I entered high school in fall of 1977. I can remember endless drills of math facts, and routine quizzes.

    I guess what worked 35 to 40 years ago isn’t relevant today.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    For the early years – drill, drill and more drill for basic operations! My dd had that – boy, did she complain at the time, but later on she would talk about the students in her hs math classes not knowing multiplication, division, how to manipulate fractions.

  3. If a student cannot master fractions (I use a plastic pizza for this) they’ll never make it past algebra I (or any higher mathematics).

    All that drilling does pay off in the long run, IMO

  4. Fourth grade was all multiplication drill for me. It went on for months after I had it down, so I spent my time improving my ability to write down numbers with excellent penmanship rapidly…good skill for college note taking.