Teaching Times Tables

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I decided to focus student efforts on memorizing times tables at the start the year. At the time, the choice largely was motivated by three reasons:

1) I was getting new students every day. With my focus on times tables, catching the new students up was easy: I only had to point to the times tables they needed to cover on their own.

2) As I told my students, if you don’t know your times tables, your performance on more difficult math problems (that rely on times tables) will be slow and inaccurate. Knowing your times tables cold gives you the “brain space” to think about the problem you’re trying to solve without getting bogged down with the mechanics.

3) A times table test can be fast and hard to cheat on. A timed times table test need not run over a few minutes. Using excel, I can instantly create a unique test for every student in the class, making direct copying impossible. To perform well, you must actually know your times tables… even if you carry a cheat-sheet, it will just slow you down.

Rather than make this one giant post, I’ve split my experience this past grading period into five posts, which I’ll be posting over this next week:

Developing Memorization Techniques

Measuring Writing Speed

Test Results and Visualization

The Importance of Honesty

Enforcing Strict Deadlines

The last two topics I think are probably the most interesting. If you don’t read anything else, at least scan those last two posts!

Even though focusing on times tables had many academic advantages (and I learned a lot about my students), there’s still one glaring drawback: they’re boring. Our first grading period lasted from Sept 2 through Oct 18, and I spent over 80% of that time on times tables. I’m surprised there was no mutiny. (The rest of my time I spent fishing around for a way to teach number sense, but I’ll write more on that once I’ve made more progress on that front).

Still, this venture was an important first step for me. By starting with such a concrete topic, my academic expectations were black-and-white from the beginning. Had I started with a more abstract topic, I would have had to deal with my own failures to communicate expectations intermixed with students’ failures to understand expectations, two extra variables that would have quickly confounded my investigations.

But since my expectations were concrete, clear, and understood by all, I can’t make excuses for the results: although a small subset of my students showed dramatic improvement, in general I failed to inspire “class-wide” improvement.

I think the only way to get the sort of results that I want are if my students are putting in regular, productive practice at home. Memorization practice as a class (where you can hide) for 45 minutes a day isn’t going to cut it. Plus, I have other, much more interesting things to teach. But these kids still need to know their math facts. (Try multiplying polynomials when every multiply you do takes you 20 seconds and has only a 60% chance of being right…)

To this end, in a future grading period I’m going to try to see if I can get their parents involved with their studying… and see if they can learn their math facts at home while I teach other things in class. I’ll let you know what comes of that. 🙂

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