Skip to main content

Drilling math problems may be the best way to help struggling students

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2015 10:59 AM

As students learn math in the Common Core State Standards, they may run into roadblocks. Certain concepts could be difficult for them to grasp, leaving them frustrated and confused. When this happens, teachers have to rethink their strategies - after all, doing it one way didn't yield results. So, some teachers try a creative approach, such as using music or toys to help students understand. What's more, the Common Core provides teachers with the opportunity to add new approaches to their lesson plans, as it encourages student-led learning. However, according to a study published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, struggling first-graders actually responded best to good old-fashioned drilling. 

Don't fix what's not broken
Researchers put first-graders into one of five groups based on how well they had performed on math tests in kindergarten. They then observed data on the way the teacher taught foundational concepts, such as addition and subtraction. Some educators used traditional methods of teaching, such as having students repeatedly practice a certain problem, while other instructors incorporated movement, music and student-led methods. The results showed that struggling students who learned under creative methods had no significant improvements in their understanding. Those who learned under traditional methods, on the other hand, improved their math abilities.

Researchers noted that teachers should use more practice and drills in math class, but that doesn't mean eliminating creative instruction altogether - some students responded well to such teaching. Rather, educators should be sure to have drilling and practice alongside other methods if they choose to teach creatively.

Applying results
The study observed only first-graders from around the U.S., so the results may not be universal for all grade levels, though it's unlikely students' cognition will change. According to NPR, many teachers interpret the Common Core to mean they should use more group learning led by students. The Standards do encourage students to struggle through problems, talk about their hypotheses of how to solve them and work as a team. However, that can happen alongside traditional practice. 

The study also highlights the importance of homework, which is often a list of problems that look alike and that students must solve. Taking math home and drilling problems should, according to the results, help struggling students understand key concepts. In first grade, students start learning how to think mathematically, building the foundation for geometry, algebra and base 10 operations.