“When I say go, flip over your paper and answer as many multiplication facts as you can in one minute. Go!”
This is a very familiar situation to many students and many teachers. Timed tests are frequently used to learn basic facts. But do they really work? Are students learning facts or merely memorizing them? Years of research suggests that timed tests do not provide the desired results. In fact they can cause stress and anxiety for the students leading to a lack of confidence in their mathematical abilities. This stress and anxiety can block the working memory inhibiting the ability to recall facts. Our goal should not be rote memorization of number sentences on a page. Our goal needs to be developing strategies, seeing relationships, and making thinking more visible.
Since timed tests won’t help us reach our goal, what should we do instead? Instructional strategies need to shift from speed to flexibility. Number sense needs to take priority over memorization. One way to make this shift is to incorporate number talks into your daily math routine. Consistent use of these short, mental activities help students learn the facts in a way that is more authentic and less stressful. Number talks provide students with the conceptual understanding they need to work fluently with numbers.
Another shift that will help us reach our goal is purposeful practice. Practice implies the application of an idea or method. Once we have provided a conceptual foundation for multiplication and division, then we can ask our students to practice their facts. Purposeful practice is an opportunity to discover patterns and relationships thus making strategies more automatic. Drill worksheets are not effective because they disregard these connections by focusing on isolated facts. Students should be more engaged in activities that emphasize exploration and discovery.
Knowing and understanding basic facts is a crucial part of a student’s mathematical learning. As teachers, we need to ensure we are providing them with the tools they will need to be successful throughout the entire journey.