George Farkas
“Math educators have created many competing curricula, and we have very limited understanding of their relative effectiveness,” says George Farkas, UC Irvine education professor. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

Music and group work might be fun but when it comes to teaching math, basic drills and worksheets may work best. That’s the takeaway of a new study co-authored by UC Irvine education professor George Farkas. He and his colleagues found that first-grade teachers may need to change their approach to improving the math skills of students who struggle with the subject.

The study revealed that teachers in U.S. classrooms with higher percentages of math-challenged students are actually more likely to use ineffective instructional strategies. They tend to employ manipulative/calculator and movement/music activities, which the researchers found do not boost math skills in children at any level of proficiency.

“Math educators have created many competing curricula, and we have very limited understanding of their relative effectiveness,” Farkas said. “However, activities such as routine practice or drill, math worksheets, problems from textbooks and math on the chalkboard appear to be most effective, probably because they increase the automaticity of arithmetic. It may be like finger exercises on the piano or ‘sounding out’ words in reading. Foundational skills need to be routinized so that the mind is free to think.”

The study appears online in Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

The research showed that only frequent use of teacher-directed instruction – focusing on textbooks, worksheets and other tools to convey facts, skills and concepts – is associated with significant gains for students with math difficulties. The most successful methods are routine practice and drill. The results hold true for first-grade students who had either persistent or transitory trouble with math in kindergarten.

The so-called “math curriculum wars” pit teacher-directed and student-centered activities against each other. The latter involves children working together to discover math skills on their own. This is ineffective when students struggle with comprehension, Farkas said: “Not all children achieve understanding in student-centered activities, and many fail to achieve automaticity with basic arithmetic facts and techniques.”

The growing reliance by first-grade teachers on non-teacher-directed instruction is surprising and troubling, he noted, given what prior research has shown about the learning needs of math-challenged students.

For their study, the researchers analyzed survey responses from 3,635 teachers and data from a subsample of 13,833 children in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, a nationally representative data set maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

It’s important that students with math difficulties be brought up to speed at an early age in order to reach their educational and career potential. Students who complete high school with relatively low math achievement are more likely to be unemployed or paid lower wages, Farkas said, even if they have good reading skills.

Teacher-directed instruction is also linked to gains in children without a history of math trouble. But unlike their math-challenged counterparts, they can benefit from some types of student-centered instruction as well – such as working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving real-life math.

While previous research has identified instructional practices that increase reading achievement in students both with and without reading problems, few prior studies have examined which teaching methods are best for boosting math skills.

“Our findings provide teachers an indication of what works,” Farkas said. “Students with math difficulties would benefit more from explicit teacher-directed types of instructional approaches rather than from other kinds of approaches that we see teachers using.”

He co-authored the work with Paul L. Morgan and Steve Maczuga of Pennsylvania State University. Funding was provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health.