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. Continue reading