Flashcards vs Songs: What's Best for Math Fact Fluency?

Flashcards vs Songs: What's Best for Math Fact Fluency

Fluently retrieving simple multiplication facts leads to an improvement of overall math scores. It frees up the brain’s working memory so that students can focus on the more demanding aspects of problem solving. But scientists at Open University of the Netherlands wanted to find out how elementary students can best reach this fluency. Using two common methods -- chanting and flashcards -- they compared the short-term and long-term effects on multiplication fact fluency.

This study was conducted in four authentic classrooms containing 48 second-grade students, with teachers executing the research, and using authentic course material. The students received an instruction lesson and attended three spaced practice sessions per learning strategy. Using the same scripted lessons, all students practiced memorizing both ways.

Before the lesson, a pre-test showed students averaged three correct math facts. Afterwards, those who chanted averaged six correct facts while those who practiced with flashcards averaged eight correct. A week later, all students were tested again without any additional practice sessions, and the flashcard group scored higher while the chanting group scores showed no significant difference from the week prior.

The researchers concluded that both learning strategies had a positive effect on multiplication fact fluency over time, however, compared to chanting out loud, retrieval practice with flashcards led to a stronger increase of both short-term and long-term multiplication fact fluency. 

The study, “The effect of retrieval practice on fluently retrieving multiplication facts in an authentic elementary school setting,” was published online in October 2023 in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

StepUp Note

This classroom experiment shows how trying to recall facts is itself a powerful tool for learning. In StepUp, our first goal is “permanent progress.” Permanent progress is our ability to learn and remember (instead of memorize and forget), and to use what we have learned as tools for new learning. The first key element is spaced practice, including small amounts of practice every day. The second key element is retrieval, meaning that we have to practice the very processing of finding information in our brain, not just re-reading or highlighting it. Spaced practice and retrieval practice are important StepUp exercises included in all of our daily programs.



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