Developing Fact Fluency without creating Anxiety


She stood there, quietly watching her peers exit the room excited to write their names on the poster in the hallway.  She wasn’t the only one not moving, but you could see, to her, EVERYONE else passed.  As I approached her I saw a single tear roll down her cheek.  “What’s wrong?” I asked as I squatted down next to her.  “I didn’t finish in time, so I can’t earn the reward”.  “Come with me”, I said.  We stepped to a quiet corner of the room and I asked her about the facts that she missed. “What is 12 times 6?”  She paused, seemingly mulling it around. I counted quietly in my head…1 Mississippi…2 Mississippi…3 Mississippi… “72” she said.  “How did you get that?” I asked.  “Well, I remembered that 12 times 5 is 60, so I added another group of 12.”  “Excellent!” I smiled. “I knew that you could figure this out.” She beamed, the tears gone and the reward forgotten for the moment.

I got back to my office and sat down, upset with what I just witnessed and angry at myself because I used to do the same thing.  I used Timed Tests as a way to get my students to improve their basic fact knowledge.  Over the years I have come to the realization that this methodology does more damage than good.  As of now, it has become a debatable point with my 3rd grade teachers who believe this is the only way.

As I sat there these thoughts swirled around my head; “It seems that fluency leads to a better understanding of other concepts and it allows us to compute more efficiently which helps us focus more on the task at hand. All the students in my school that are deep thinkers tend to have these basic skills committed to memory while those that struggle don’t.  Also, why do some students commit the basic facts to memory quicker than others? Is it a conceptual understanding, or just memorization?”

I have come to the conclusion that there are many good teaching strategies for encouraging fluency in math.  The difficult part has been finding the ones that are effective without instilling fear and anxiety.  Most teachers, myself included, use or have used “timed tests” at one point of our careers.  We became frustrated when students didn’t improve and blamed them for not studying.  I know now that timed tests convey strong negative messages about math, suggesting that math ability is measured by working quickly, rather than thinking deeply and carefully.  The thing is, thinking deeply and carefully about the flexible use of numbers is the hallmark of high-mathematical problem solvers.  Isn’t that what we are trying to create as math teachers?

Jo Boaler, who is a professor of Mathematics Education and the co-founder of, has stated that; “research tells us that students understand more complex functions when they have number sense and deep understanding of numerical principles, not blind memorization or fast recall.” This was the push behind the common core standards that many states, including Georgia, have adopted.  Her research found that the highest achievers in the world are those who focus on big ideas in mathematics, and who develop a connected view of mathematics when they work on math conceptually. The lowest achieving students are those who focus on memorization and are taught that memorizing is the best way to study mathematics. I also read about a study that found that students instructed with a strategy for remembering facts learned a set of 24 facts with higher accuracy than students who were presented the facts to memorize with no aids to remembering (84% vs.59%)! (Carnine and Stein 1981).

…and then there is this…

“The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.”
Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

With all this knowledge staring us in the face, why do teachers insist upon handing out a paper face down, setting a timer at some random time, and saying, “Ready, set, GO!”? There has to be better ways, and this isn’t one…

Keep your thoughts coming, because together we achieve more!

2 thoughts on “Developing Fact Fluency without creating Anxiety

  1. Great thoughts here, Jason. I think it is so important that we are explicit with our intentions for all students to gain number fluency, rather than simply being able to recall quickly. I think the “math wars” that are constantly going on in the media are really two groups of educators who want what is best for students, but disagree on how to get there. You’ve made it clear that you feel math facts are important, but we must continue to think deeply to find creative ways to achieve our goal.

    1. Kyle,
      I am in total agreement with you! I know that all teachers want what is best for their students, but the disagreements arise from the wisest way to help the students achieve. I want my teachers here to believe that there are better ways to help students learn instead of just worksheets and workbooks.

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