In this series, we dive into the realm of educational research to help you best formulate effective classroom practice
What is fluency in mathematics, and why is it important? Let’s find out.
What does the research say?
Perhaps the most useful way to think about mathematical fluency is procedurally, which is defined by The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) as “the ability to apply procedures accurately, efficiently, and flexibly”.
Closely related to the idea of fluency is automation. As proponents of the cognitive load theory (Sweller, Van Merrienboer & Paas, 1998) state, our working memories have a limited capacity. Once the limit has been reached (a state known as cognitive overload) the brain is unable to learn any further information.
So, one way we can help ease the burden on our fragile working memory is by automating key facts and procedures. This then frees up capacity, and allows our brains to concentrate on the more complex parts of a problem, such as spotting connections and plotting solutions. Therefore, students who are able to automate knowledge struggle less when faced with complex problems.
However, while the benefits of fluency and automation are widely accepted, there is no uniform answer for how best to develop them. In fact, following my discussions with Lucy Rycroft-Smith from Cambridge Mathematics, it became apparent that within the research there are actually several conflicting arguments.
One theory (Wong & Evans, 2007) suggests that without added time pressure, students are unlikely to develop the kind of automated knowledge that they need to free up capacity within their working memory. For example, students completing a simple multiplication by counting on their fingers will be at a significant disadvantage compared to peers who are able to recall answers instantly. However, Ashcraft (2002) states that such timed tests cause anxiety, therefore lowering the chances of students retaining and automating knowledge.
Fluency, and the associated process of automation, may well be the key to higher-order thinking and more complex problem solving. However, the process of automating knowledge should be approached in a fun, non-threatening way, such as through regularly conducting low-stakes quizzes.