Friday, April 12, 2013

Good Software vs. Pencil/Paper Timed Math Facts Tests

Knowing which facts your students are fluent in is critical if you are going to help them achieve fluency in the facts.  The question is, "What's the best way to ascertain fluency?"  Here's my take on the advantages of good software over pencil/paper timed math facts tests.  You expected that, right:)

1)  Automatic (instant) grading, need I say more.
2)  Good software will tell you if the student is fluent.  On a pencil/paper test, all you know is that, on average, they were fast enough.  They may be really fast on the easy ones, and have to count on their fingers on the hardest ones, but they can still beat the time.  Good software checks fluency for each fact on its own.  And this fluency is a different speed for each student.  We've all had students who could count on their fingers faster than other students could automatically recall the answer.  So good software will have a way to determine how fast each student is; faster for some, slower for others.  That way, fast students can’t count, and slow students aren't frustrated.
3)  Instant feedback – it took me a long time to figure out why it actually takes longer to do 100 facts on Math Facts Pro than it does on pencil paper.  The main difference is that the student gets immediate feedback for every answer.  Quick feedback if they are right, longer exposure to the correct answer if they were wrong.  (And, if allowed, we throw in a joke every 20 – 30 facts, too, depending on the grade level.)
4)  Good software will never show the student the wrong answer, which is especially important for visual learners.  (It's also not multiple choice, which tests recognition, not fluency.  I'll get off my soap box now.)
5)  If a student gets an answer wrong, good software will come back to it again.  If they repeatedly get it wrong, it will try to teach it.  The test is actually a learning tool.
6)  The data is based on all attempts the student has ever made, not just the one attempt on the last test.  Mastery is defined by educational psychologist as a certain number of correct rehearsals with no mistakes.  With pencil/paper, you just get one shot.  Maybe your handwriting was sloppy because you were going so fast.
7)  Less frustration.  Good software adjusts the difficulty of the questions, so each student spends more time on the facts they need to be working on.  High students get harder questions - they will get frustrated having to do all the 1's, 2's, 3's.  Low students get easier ones.  Not too easy, just easy enough not to discourage them and keep them going.  What is the point of asking them the 8's and 9's if you know they don't know them?  Differentiated instruction and assessment.
8)  Random.  The student never has any idea which problem will be next, so they can’t memorize the answers.
9)  Instant tracking.  When they get to the results page, the student not only sees how many facts they are fluent in, they can see how they've been improving (how far they've come).
10)  Good software like Math Facts Pro (did you see that coming?) is constantly improvingJ  For example, next week (the week of April 8, 2013), we are hoping to launch the beta versions of Math Fact Scramble (which will help students move from fact strategies to fluency), and Contig (which will help students mentally manipulate the facts).  It will still be awhile, though, before they are tied into the database, but at least the students will have a new, fun way to improve their fluency.


  1. Hi there! Thank you for such an insightful blog. Right now I have a second grader who is struggling to master subtraction facts. Right now flash cards aren't working. As I read your blog, I realize I've been doing it wrong. His teacher has sent home a sheet with 64 subtraction problems that my son should be able to complete in 5 mins. Right now he gets maybe 15-20 correct in that time frame. One of his issues is anxiety. He literally can't stop worrying about completing the test while he's taking it. Your math program is helping. He loves the jokes. Thank you!

  2. Is it ok if the student just recites the answers and I put them in? They get very frustrated if they miss one because they accidentally hit the wrong number.

  3. You can use the program however it best suits you. It will work to click for them. However, I'm sure that what you really want is for the student to be able to handle the frustration better or not get frustrated in the first place. Remind them that it is not a race. If they go as fast as they possibly can, they will click on numbers before they light up when the mouse is over them, and will make a lot of mistakes. Instead, just go at a normal pace, wait for the lights, if they have to, and they won't make any mistakes due to clicking errors. Mistakes that they make from answering incorrectly are going to continue to happen until they know them all, that's a part of learning. Maybe you want to focus your praise on decreasing the amount of their expressing their frustration?