Regardless of our age, we all share a common rite of passage in early education— the mastery of math facts. Although the way we practice math facts has changed over the years, we all remember doing them over and over again. For me, it was learning the multiplication tables by using physical flash cards, a task I often found rote and boring, and which I believed had no merit whatsoever. “Put a damper on my creativity,” I thought years later. Little did I know I was developing automaticity, a foundational skill critical to my future success not only as a learner but also in the workplace.
Automaticity is the ability to perform skilled tasks quickly and effortlessly without occupying the mind with the low-level details required to do it. Automaticity is attained through learning, repetition, and practice. In math, students have attained automaticity (also known as math fact fluency) when they can easily retrieve basic facts from their long-term memory in all four operations (+, −, ×, ÷) without conscious effort or attention.
Why Is Automaticity Making a Comeback?
Research has shown that automaticity is a building block for mastering higher-level math concepts. It helps students avoid math anxiety, and it is a significant predictor of performance on standardized tests. Fact retrieval speed as a predictor of performance is not limited to test items that directly assess computation skills; it also predicts performance on more conceptual problems that require students to solve word problems, interpret data, or exercise mathematical practices.
Automaticity is essential to turning basic skills into tools for future learning, which creates an independent learner who is self-confident and successful in his or her studies. Researchers see the difference between a struggling learner and an independent learner not just as the mastery of a skill but also the speed or fluency with which the skill can be performed.
If a child can’t automate a basic skill or has little fluency, he or she will experience limited success in quickly mastering new skills. This will cause ongoing frustration over the time it takes to accomplish a task and distracted learning. Having to think consciously about basic skills while doing a higher-level task results in a cognitive conflict that leads to fatigue. It can also cause a downward spiral where a learning problem can turn into an attention problem that then becomes a behavior problem.
Is U.S. Math Education Headed in the Right Direction?
Research over the past decade has shown that many children in the United States never achieve proficiency with math facts, and those who do typically achieve it later than their peers in nations with higher mathematics achievement. A study conducted by Hook, Bishop, Wayne, and Hook in 2006 concluded that in order to compete with world-class elementary math curriculum in Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Belgium, and the Czech Republic, the United States must prepare its students early in order for them to achieve success and self-confidence in a 21st-century global economy.
To address this issue, national curriculum standards and guidelines have highlighted automaticity with facts as a core objective of elementary mathematics education, including:
- NCTM Curriculum Focal Points (2006): Grade 2, Grade 4
- National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s Core Principles of Math Instruction (2008): Read Excerpts
- Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (2010): Read Excerpts
The Challenge Ahead
The challenge for teachers will be how to ensure that students are getting the practice they need at the level they need to make sure that they are recalling the facts and not just deriving them. Building more practice time in to the curriculum as well as establishing rate criteria that students must achieve. Companies such as Learning Wrap Ups, FASTT Math, and Everyday Math have designed programs to build automaticity.
Here at Victory, we have worked on many math programs and realize what a critical foundation automaticity provides. For us, the key takeaways are:
- Keep students motivated!
Digital solutions such as math games are a great way to keep it fun.
- Recognize that each student is different!
Adaptive digital solutions are the best way to provide personalized learning that reaches more students.
We have found that digital solutions for developing automaticity are an excellent way to help students master an essential skill that actually supports creativity in the long run.