Math Fact Fluency: Predicting Student Success in Mathematics
“One times three equals three.”
“Two times three equals six.”
“Three times three equals nine.”
Many of us remember elementary school days when classes of students practiced multiplication tables out loud until they were memorized. Some students used flash cards to practice math facts, with timed tests that measured our level of mastery. These days, educators have even more options to help students achieve math fact fluency in subtraction, addition, multiplication, and division including video-game-like digital education programs. But why the focus on mastering rote math facts? And what are the benefits, if any?
Automaticity and fluency
First, it’s important to understand what is involved in math fact mastery. Students achieve math fact fluency through automaticity, or the ability to deliver a correct answer immediately from memory without relying on calculation. Fluency, on the other hand, requires students to be both fast and accurate when solving basic math facts. Multiple studies have evaluated the benefits of achieving math fact fluency, finding the impact of this practice to be far-reaching for student success in math.
Is math fact fluency really that important?
Studies have shown math fact automaticity to be a predictor of performance on math assessments and tests. Additionally, research has connected automaticity in math facts to success in learning higher mathematical concepts. This is compelling as studies find that if a student begins to fall behind in learning math facts at the elementary level, they often continue this pattern into secondary level math.
A major benefit of math fact automaticity is it relieves cognitive load for students, freeing up mental resources for additional learning. Without the ability to retrieve facts automatically, students are likely to experience added processing demands which often lead to errors in computation and frustration with learning.
Another factor that can get in the way of students gaining math fact fluency is math anxiety which often results from negative learning experiences or a student’s belief that they just “aren’t a math person.” Educators and parents can remedy these destructive thoughts by providing immediate feedback highlighting a student’s success, explaining why their negative self-thoughts are inaccurate, and providing gentle correction to mistakes and supportive guidance to lead students towards learning. This loop of practice and feedback helps build a student’s trust in their abilities to succeed as they become more fluent in math facts. However, this level of individualized instruction can be difficult for teachers to provide given the size of many classes today.
Helping students achieve math fact fluency
One of the best ways to help students achieve math fact fluency is to first demonstrate how math works around them in everyday life so that they value the knowledge. This can be anything from adding up item totals when shopping or multiplying lengths to accurately measure the area of a new piece of furniture for their bedroom. When students see the personal value of learning math, they are often more invested in the educational process.
Next, educators can present a strategy to teach math facts in an engaging, age-appropriate context. This may include gamification, an educational approach that engages learners and often results in deeper learning as students enjoy the game-like experience and stay with their learning task longer than traditional teaching methods.
Gamification is one of the advantages of a digital education program like Imagine Math Facts, a video-game-like program that lets students “play” while learning their math facts. In the program, students move through a variety of gamified tasks, regularly encountering math fact questions that they must answer to advance in the program.
The program also provides rapid personalized feedback to immediately let students know what they’ve done right or wrong so they can correct their thinking. As students strengthen their automaticity skills, they develop confidence in their ability to quickly recall math facts presented throughout the program. Imagine Math Facts also tailors the learning experience to the individual student, starting their learning at their individual level instead of where the class schedule dictates.
So, whether students gain automaticity through traditional teaching tactics or the latest educational technology offerings, one thing is clear. The impact of mastering math facts has long-term implications for all math learners.