Why do Students Struggle When Learning Math Facts?

Learning Math Facts

Math facts are simply the basics: addition, subtraction; multiplication; division. They are basic number combinations and calculations we do every day.  So why is it that learning math facts  creates such huge problems for teachers and students in our classrooms?

Subtraction mistake when learning math facts

Common subtraction mistake when children are learning math facts.

Is it that some of us are just naturally better at math than others?  Perhaps.  The good news is you as a teacher can help anyone improve their math skills.  You might be wondering how.  Well, rote memorization alone won’t get us there.

Reasoning is Critical When Learning Math Facts 

Arthur Baroody reminds us that there are 3 phases to the process of learning facts.

Phase 1: Counting (modeling or grouping)

Phase 2: Reasoning (strategies based on known facts)

Phase 3: Recall (knowing)

Unfortunately, the second phase (reasoning) gets skipped all too often and the outcome is students who struggle with fact recall and can only rely on inefficient counting strategies to solve problems.  How efficient is counting 8 groups of 7 in your head?  On your fingers?  These counting strategies lead to incorrect solutions and frustrated students who see math as a regurgitation of facts.  Moreover, teachers can become disgruntled when their efforts appear to be futile due to a lack of understanding the concepts.

Learning Math Facts

Girl counting on her fingers to solve a math problem when learning math facts.

So what is the solution?  We need to meet each student where she is and redirect these counting strategies to more efficient ones. It is our job to create a toolbox to help students learn facts by relating ideas.  How do we create this toolbox in supporting fluency?  We create it by completing the second phase of Baroody’s process as explained in this article Basic Math Facts.

It is not enough to build the toolbox and assume recall will just happen.  But, by helping students understand how to pick the right tool at the right time, we are developing their reasoning skills.  If a hammer is not available right when I need it, is there another tool that may not be as efficient but will get the job done? Practicing when to pick which tool at the appropriate time is not only practicing better recall, but building number sense.  BONUS!

Toolbox for children learning math facts.

Children need to be able to select from multiple tools when learning math facts.

When implemented correctly, students build a toolbox that encourages creativity, builds number sense and demands reasoning with numbers… As John A. Van de Walle says… ““All children are able to master the basic facts – including children with learning disabilities. All children can construct efficient mental tools that will help them.” (Van de Walle, 2007)  It’s not a matter of ability rather the opportunity and time to support students in Phase 2.  Determine what comes easy for students and build from what they already know.

Several representations of a math problem from a child learning math facts.

Child demonstrating multiple renditions of a problem when learning math facts.

Make Learning Math Facts Fun

There are many ways to make learning math facts fun. In the classroom, there are math games such as Concentration, Old Maid and Go Fish.  At home, there are books and online games such as Greg Tang’s Web Bonds and Reflex Math.  There are numerous ways to make math games out of household items such as cards, dominoes, marbles, clothes pins, bobby pins, pennies, etc.  Place these items into a ten slot egg crate and simply ask questions such as, “ If I have 4 marbles, how many more do I need in order to have 10?  If I give you 5 marbles and give her 5 marbles how many do we have?  What if I give you 6 and her 3.  How many more do I need to give one of you in order to have 10?”  Or move to real life events such as an upcoming vacation.  Ask, “If our vacation is in 2 weeks, how many days is that? “

Children playing games while learning math facts.

Children having fun while learning math facts.

The questions and options are endless.  Like with most things, the more we practice the better we get, right?  Soon, children will move from their counting strategies to more advanced reasoning strategies… Like solving in their heads.  Problem Solved!