Math fluency improves student learning and appreciation of the subject

Applying characteristics of fluency requires student time and patience
By: | Issue: April 2020 | Thought Leadership
April 1, 2020

Q&A with Gina Kling, Mathematics Instructor at Western Michigan University and Author of Everyday Mathematics 4, McGraw-Hill

How does developing fluency in mathematics improve student learning and appreciation of math?
There are four components of fluency: flexibility, appropriate choice of strategies, efficiency and accuracy. The focus on flexibility and strategies to develop problem-solving skills makes students more efficient and accurate. The idea of fluency in terms of flexibility and the problem-solving aspect makes students feel less anxious about it and more confident in their mathematical abilities, resulting in greater appreciation.

What can K-12 administrators eliminate to improve math fluency and set up students for success?
When students first develop fluency, we are helping them become flexible thinkers and develop meaningful strategies. The other piece of that is how to assess fluency. The way we traditionally assess basic facts is the timed test. When thinking about the four components of fluency, we are not assessing flexibility because there is no way for teachers to see how students think about a problem when they are just recording an answer in a short amount of time. We cannot assess the strategies either because timed tests do not do that by design. As for efficiency and accuracy, there is quite a bit of research coming out of the fields of neuroscience and psychology about the damaging effects of timed testing and the anxiety that children feel, which impedes their ability to show what they know.

What strategies help teachers support all learners in developing fluency and reaching automaticity?
One of the biggest strategies for teachers is having patience while providing students time to wrestle with ideas. Kindergarten and first-grade teachers feel pressure to have students reach automaticity, which is different from fluency. Automaticity involves fluency because when students are automatic, they reach the point where they can very efficiently apply characteristics of fluency. Teachers should assess for automaticity at the end of second grade. It is premature to assess them in kindergarten or first grade as students need time and space to reach automaticity in a lasting and meaningful way by tying together conceptual pieces with efficiency.

“Students need to have a sense of overall measurement before we expect them to do complex problems with area or volume.”

What are the most effective learning practices and how can instructional coaches help teachers use them effectively?
In Everyday Mathematics 4, we help students create an environment where they own their learning. “Subitizing,” which is the ability to quickly identify the number of items in a small set without counting, is a good strategy learned through Quick Look Cards, an activity in which images of quantities on durable cards are displayed for a few seconds and then removed. Students are naturally discouraged from merely trying to count, which encourages strategic development. Students need to have a sense of overall measurement before we expect them to do complex problems with area or volume, and the same principle applies with basic fact development—conceptual understanding must accompany the development of fluency. We are honoring and understanding that developmental progression with Everyday Mathematics 4.

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