Math Fluency Matters

  • Posted on: 21 October 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Most educators know that poor math fluency has an adverse impact on students, but to what extent?  Well, math fluency has a profound impact on every student's ability to succeed in mathematics, not only in calculation skills but in all types of problem-solving and higher order mathematics that the student will encounter over the years. That begs the questions, 'What is meant by math fluency?' and 'What can we do to strengthen it?'

Math fluency is not the old-fashioned (and sometimes mindless) skill and drill of yesteryear. It refers to a student's ability to quickly and easily recall and apply their skills in mathematics. Marvin Cohen, of Bank Street College, asserts that all students should be able to explore, apply, prove, invent and argue in order to be (age appropriate) mathematicians. In order to fully develop their mathematical skills, students must be fluent: accurate, efficient, and flexible (Susan Joe Russell) in relation to mathematics. 

If these ideas sound great but perhaps a little too aspirational, think about how poor math fluency will impact students over time.  As the demands of the mathematics curriculum increase, students need to do more and more problem solving.  To be effective in problem solving, one must quickly and easily draw upon prior knowledge and hold it in working memory while also carefully considering the 'problem' at hand. Students who cannot efficiently do this, or who need to rely on other 'tools' to calculate, will loose the natural flow of their thinking process.  The result may be confusion, an interruption of the sequence of problem solving and 'split attention' as they divert their attention away from the problem and back again.  Frustration, and a tendency for a student to believe that he or she is 'not good at math' can result. It is not an overstatement to say that each student's future academic path (and perhaps subsequent career choices) will be impacted by his or her math fluency. 

Difficulties with math fluency, especially for students with known learning difficulties, are very unlikely to be resolved without high quality, direct instruction that addresses the issue.  According to Paul Cholmsky, Ph.D. (2011) there are four steps or phases of instruction that promote math fluency:

  • Systematically introduce small sets of new facts with appropriate teaching strategies

  • Progressively develop and strengthen the student’s ability to recall new facts (no time pressure)

  • Practice with moderate time pressure and increasing retrieval difficulty

  • Automatize recall via practice under increasing working memory load

Math fluency matters, and must be effectively taught and nurtured beginning at an early age and continuing until students have the skills they need to succeed at complex problem solving. Mathematics, often called 'the mother of all sciences' is the key to many doors in our students' futures. Let's make sure that all students have the math fluency skills that they need to use that key to open exciting doors throughout their lives.