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Study: Struggling Math Students Need Direct Instruction, Not 'Fun' Activities

By guest blogger Sarah D. Sparks

This post originally appeared on the Inside School Research blog.

First grade teachers facing a class full of students struggling with math were more likely to turn to music, movement, and manipulative toys to get their frustrated kids engaged, finds a new study in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Yet researchers found these techniques did not help—and in some cases hindered—learning for the students having the most difficulty.

Pennsylvania State University researchers Paul L. Morgan and Steve Maczuga and George Farkas of the University of California, Irvine analyzed the use of different types of instruction by 1st grade mathematics teachers, including teacher-directed instruction, such as explicit explanations and practice drills; student-centered, such as small-group projects and open problem-solving; and strategies intended to ground math in real life, such as manipulative toys, calculators, music, and movement activities.

The researchers tracked the use of different strategies by 1st grade teachers with both regular students and those with math difficulties, defined as students who had performed in the bottom 15 percent of their kindergarten math achievement tests. Educators taught an array of math skills, from ordering and sorting objects into groups, writing numbers up to 100, naming shapes, copying patterns, and single-digit addition and subtraction, among others. The researchers found that students of average math ability learned equally well using teacher-directed or student-centered instructional approaches, but struggling students improved only when teachers used directed instruction, and particularly extra practice with basic concepts.

"In general education there's been more focus on approaches that are student-centered: peers and small groups, cooperative learning activities. What can happen with that for kids with learning difficulties is there are barriers that can interfere with their ability to take advantage of those learning activities. Children with learning disabilities tend to benefit from instruction that is explicit and teacher directed, guided and modeled and also has lots of opportunities for practice."

Moreover, neither struggling nor regularly achieving math students improved when using manipulatives, calculators, music, or movement strategies; these activities actually decreased student learning in some cases. Ironically, a regression analysis of the classes found teachers became more likely to use these strategies in classes with higher concentrations of students with math difficulties.

"If I was going to offer a conjecture, what might be happening, as the teacher gets more students in the classroom that are struggling, they might be using the manipulatives or music to work around the students difficulties and make the math seem more real ... but our results don't indicate that those practices will lead to more student achievement gains," Morgan said.

Older students may still benefit from manipulatives and other math activities, and the findings don't argue for filling students' days with "drill and kill," Morgan said, but early elementary school—when students are learning basic math concepts for the first time and when few students have been officially identified as having math learning disabilities—can create a perfect environment for students to founder in math.

"I don't want kids to be bored, I don't want them to look at math as drudgery, I don't want my kids to go to school and do worksheets all day. I want them to be engaged by what they are being taught," Morgan said, "but I think sometimes we touch on concepts too briefly; we only give kids two or three opportunities to practice it."

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