I hear a variation on the following question almost every time I talk with middle school teachers:
How am I supposed to teach ratios (or algebra or operations with signed numbers or …) when my students don’t even know their multiplication facts?
Yes. There are middle school students who don’t know their multiplication facts. I was shocked by this when I first started teaching middle school. I seem to remember that when I was a student everyone in my class knew their multiplication facts. I’m willing to bet that my teachers remember this differently.
There are lots of good reasons for students to be fluent with their multiplication facts. Wallace and Gurganus (2005) argued that not knowing multiplication facts can affect students’ development in math as well as their confidence and attitude towards math.
What is still up for debate is the best way to foster students’ fluency. Some people think lots and lots of multiplication drills are the way to go. I sat in a class recently where students spent the first minute of class completing as many multiplication facts as they could on a sheet.
It was a mess. The kids who memorized their multiplication facts back in elementary school were bored. The others were embarrassed and/or frustrated. Not a great way to start class.
The research backs up my experience that timed tests alone won’t be enough to help those who are still struggling to master their facts in middle school. Especially if the tests aren’t combined with students setting their own learning goals or other interventions.
Baroody (2006) noted that drills are often inefficient since there are too many facts to memorize and that they can limit students from developing flexible strategies. Frequent timed tests can also cause anxiety and create a culture where speed is more important than understanding (Issacs & Carroll, 1999). The pressure to memorize facts can turn children away from math.
So if we agree we want students to master their multiplication facts and that timed multiplication tests by themselves aren’t going to work, what do we do? I’ll talk about what the research suggests next time.
Baroody, A. J. (2006). Mastering the Basic Number Combinations. Teaching Children Mathematics, 13, 22–31.
Isaacs, A. C., & Carroll, W. M. (1999). Strategies for Basic-Facts Instruction. Teaching Children Mathematics, 5(9), 508-15.
Wallace, A., & Gurganus, S.P. (2005) Teaching for Mastery of Multiplication. Teaching Children Mathematics, 12(1): 26-33.