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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Don't make math harder than it needs to be

Struggle is supposed to be good for math students, writes Greg Ashman on Filling the Pail. Telling them how to solve problems is supposed to be bad. He thinks that's silly.

The "latest excuse for bad maths teaching" is the "claim that explicit, procedural approaches to mathematics . . . will make students anxious" by requiring "right" answers, he writes.

Photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash

But a new study shows that explicit instruction reduces anxiety, Ashman writes.

Fifth graders saw the same video of a math lesson, then were asked to solve a problem. One group were shown the worked example of a similar problem while the other group did not.

Math-anxious students who didn't see the example reported more "mind wandering" during the test, while anxious students who saw the example were able to focus, researchers reported. That lead to "improved learning as measured three days later."

In addition, "students who reviewed worked examples were less worried than controls on average, which was related to learning."

It makes sense that trying to solve problems without knowing how would cause anxiety, Ashman concludes.

Timed math drills -- the "mad minute"of addition or multiplication -- are controversial too, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay on Proof Points.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics urges teachers to “avoid” timed tests that might cause math anxiety, she writes. "But advocates say speed drills help children memorize math facts, freeing up their brains to tackle more challenging math problems."

The U.S. Department of Education urges timed activities to help students build fluency in a 2021 guide for elementary teachers. The What Works Clearinghouse "found 27 studies to back timed practice," considered “strong” evidence.

In one 2013 study, struggling first graders received math tutoring three times a week and were split into two groups. One played untimed games to reinforce the lessons. The other was subjected to speed practice, where the children worked in groups to try to answer as many math flashcards correctly as possible within 60 seconds. Each time they were encouraged to “meet or beat” their previous score. After 16 weeks, the children in the speed practice group had much higher math achievement than the children who had played untimed games.

Children in the speed group got a lot more practice, which builds long-term memories, said Lynn Fuchs, a Vanderbilt education professor who led the study.

"While the causes of math anxiety are debated and mysterious," writes Barshay, "many in the pro-drill camp suspect that children might feel less math anxiety if they became more proficient in the subject, which is something that drills might help accomplish."

Ed Week's Sarah Schwartz talks to elementary teachers about the importance of building math fluency.

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