I just returned from the 2019 AERA Annual Meeting in Toronto! It was a great meeting where I heard about lots of interesting research, met new colleagues, and best of all, got to present some of my own work.
My contribution to AERA this year was a paper I wrote with my friend and colleague, Dr. Meg Bates of UChicago STEM Education. A few years ago, we were given access to de-identified data from kids using an online fact practice game associated with the Everyday Mathematics curriculum. One of the most interesting features of the game is that students self-select one of three timing modes:
- They can play in a mode with no time limit or tracking, where they take as much time as they need to answer each question and no information about their speed is reported to them.
- They can play in a mode called Beat Your Time, where they still take as much time as they need to answer each question, but their total time is reported at the end of the round and compared to their best previous time. So, time is tracked but not limited.
- Lastly, they can play in a mode with a 6 second time limit on each question.
When we noticed this feature of the game (and its user data), we starting digging into research on timed fact drills. It’s a highly discussed and controversial issue in elementary mathematics education. On one hand, several prominent researchers argue the potential connections to mathematics anxiety and inhibition of flexible thinking outweigh any benefits (e.g., Boaler, 2014; Kling & Bay-Williams, 2014). On the other hand, it’s well established that efficient production of basic facts is connected to later mathematics achievement (e.g., Baroody, Eiland, Purpura, & Reid, 2013; Geary, 2010). And arguably, even if it does not have to be discussed directly with kids, efficiency involves some amount of speed.
Overall, we were surprised at the inconclusive nature of the research when taken as a whole. There may be connections between timed fact drills and outcomes we don’t want (like math anxiety), but there has not been much unpacking of what features of timed testing are problematic. The game data — in particular, the contrast between the time limit mode and the Beat Your Time mode — gave us an opportunity to look at one particular issue: Does a focus on time always lead to detriments in fact performance, or is it specifically when time is limited?
Our analysis suggests that time limits may be the culprit. We compared students’ overall levels of accuracy and speed across modes, and found that students playing in the time limit mode had significantly (and practically) lower accuracy than when the same students played in the other two modes — but there was no practical difference in accuracy between the no time mode and Beat Your Time mode. So, in short, time limits were associated with lower accuracy, but time tracking was not.
When it came to speed, students were fastest in the time limit mode, but were still faster in the Beat Your Time mode than in the no time mode. So, Beat Your Time mode seemed to promote speed, without the detriment to accuracy associated with the time limit mode.
We were excited by this result. Although we can make no causal claims, the results do suggest that challenging kids to monitor their own speed when practicing facts could support the development of speed without promoting anxiety or other negative outcomes that can lead to lower accuracy (and general bad feelings about math). Although we did not see this result coming, it does make sense to us, upon reflection, that self monitoring could be helpful. In the future, we hope to do (or inspire others to do) more research on how metacognitive strategies could be applied to fact learning.
Baroody, A. J., Eiland, M. D., Purpura, D. J., & Reid, E. E. (2013). Can computer-assisted discovery learning foster first graders’ fluency with the most basic addition combinations? American Educational Research Journal, 50(3), 533-573.
Boaler, J. (2014). Research suggests that timed tests cause math anxiety. Teaching Children Mathematics, 20(8), 469-474.
Geary, D. C. (2010). Mathematical disabilities: Reflections on cognitive, neuropsychological, and genetic components. Learning and Individual Differences, 20, 130-133.
Kling, G., & Bay-Williams, J. M. (2014). Assessing basic fact fluency. Teaching Children Mathematics, 20(8), 488-497.