Math can be a very difficult and dreadful subject. Many students fear their exams and find math painstakingly difficult! Only a handful of ‘lucky’ ones seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
This problem is not really prevalent in the first years at school, where math is relatively easy and considered fun go math grade 3. But after a brief and relaxed honeymoon period, the going will get tough in later years.
After the introduction of multiplication tables in the first two school years, students are required to memorize these tables accurately and above all to recite them without thinking. Too many students, however, will rely on their addition skills and will not be able to recite the multiplication facts quickly enough.
Most schools follow a spiral math curriculum in which students revise topics in increasing difficulty levels.
If students miss out on a core subject matter, it will be very difficult to catch up. Long division is a good example of this. The core of long division is simple basic multiplication and subtraction as studied in the first and second grade. The only new thing is the process, or structure, of long division.
What happens is that those who mastered their time tables in the second grade will have no problem solving these long division problems. They can fully focus on the process, instead of concentrating on the math facts. Those who struggled with their multiplication tables will most likely also struggle with long division. The ability and motivation gap between students is widening as the years progress.
So how do we get young learners to master these basic operation skills? Or how do we keep students motivated enough to keep up with the spiral math content? The answer is engagement. Teacher need to be able to fully engage students to do their work, or in the case where students stay behind, have the strength to catch up.
There are many strategies how teachers can get their students engaged. In his book “The Art and Science of Teaching”, Robert Marzano describes student engagement. Marzano states that people naturally like to play games! Marzano statements indicate that when teachers present their learning materials in the form of games and puzzles, students will take the bait and learning will take place.
The key to student engagement and learning, from this perspective, is to create exciting learning materials. Materials that students perceive as a game or puzzles rather than what they really are: learning materials.
Nowadays teachers can use an enormous amount of internet resources to create puzzles. Just be creative. It is fairly easy to turn a multiplication table, or any form of math content, in a math word search or crossword puzzle. Let students calculate the words to be found first and then complete the puzzle. Kids love to solve puzzles, it’s how our brains are designed. Marzano states that our brain functions are better simulated when we actively have to fill in blanks or missing pieces of information.
By introducing puzzles in the math lesson or as homework, teachers can get every student engaged. And the more students practice, the better they will learn or catch up. Teachers can give puzzles as homework assignment to those who are struggling with the subject. To give a puzzle as homework rather than a page in a book, will probably yield a better result.