Sunday, March 31, 2013

Repetition in math class

Practice makes perfect! or Perfect Practice makes Perfect!

These, and others, are comments I hear as to why we need practice in math classes.  This "practice" can be seen by worksheets, flash cards, and multiplication tables.  I, however, disagree with this notion.

The problem occurs when we look at what the students are supposedly practicing when they complete the above tasks. 

These tasks promote the idea of efficiency over understanding.  I remember back to when I used to administer "Mad Minutes" (basic questions which have to be completed in a minute or less, and their mark was based on only the ones which were answered correctly.  If a student did not answer it, or did so and was incorrect, this student would lose marks).  On multiple occasions, I saw students writing down numbers which made no sense, simply due to the pressure put on them during this timed exam. 

Of course, how can students complete deep math questions if they don't understand their basics?  Well I have a great story against this...and the main character in this story is me!  I still to this day, 30 years old with a bachelor degree in Mathematics, and 3 courses left in my Masters of Mathematics, cannot recite the multiplication tables.  I struggle deeply with my 7 and 8 times tables.  Does this make me a weak math student?  Does this imply I will not be able to answer deep questions?  I would hope not one person would answer yes to either of these questions.  However, the way I used to assess math, through repetition, would never allow myself to succeed in my own courses. 

If it was not for my own mother, who strongly refused to use flash cards at home, I would probably have grown up hating mathematics.

As a math teacher I needed to understand that the beauty of mathematics does not come from memorization of basic facts, but instead the use of basic facts to solve problems which a person may encounter on a daily basis.  Does understanding basic facts allow for students to solve problems quicker? Of course, but should we judge the quality of answer solely based on the time given?

I have given tasks to my students, some of which are upcoming blog posts, where students have chosen to complete multiple questions, of similar types, to come to a conclusion.  The difference in these tasks, however, is the word "choice".  If we allow students to decide how many problems he/she needs to solve, to demonstrate higher level thinking, then I guarantee your students will start to see the beauty of mathematics as a wonderful, sometimes chaotic, subject which is not limited to solving petty details.


  1. Dave Coffey's usual comment on this: "practice makes permanent" So those who advocate it tip their hand as to what they think math really is. I look forward to the coming posts because choice is sooo necessary for learners, and we have too little of it in traditional math instruction.

  2. Isn't it really clear that all learning is a combination of both repetition and pushing-the-knowledge-envelope exposure? How does a student learn to read without practicing/memorizing the alphabet? Then he expands on that. How does a student learn chemistry without studying about the work already done on elements and compounds? Then he expands on that. How does a student learn world languages without working on basic vocab? Then he expands on that.

    Don't throw the baby out with the bath-water. Einstein managed very well without a basic background, but can we all agree he was exceptional? In general, a foundation is needed before a building is built. Of course students can feel wonderful about their education if they can choose to eliminate whatever is uncomfortable for them. And if good feelings is our goal of education, then let's do that. However if a well-rounded educated citizen is our goal, maybe we should be the adult in this situation and guide the student to learn subjects that may not be their first choice with the goal of teaching them to think in many different ways.

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  4. I'm failing my test tomorrow because my class had no form of repetitive homework, so I just forgot it all. No one teaches in a way that doesn't require most people to utilize repetition.