Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sorenson's Ranch School Teacher Answers: "What is taking so long"

During the years that I have been teaching mathematics, I have noticed that many students complain about the number of problems in an assignment or the amount of time it takes to complete an assignment. I decided to look at the situation and see if the assignments I give are too long. I started by doing all of the assignments myself. I found that the average time it takes me to do the assignments is about 10 minutes. I worked every problem out completely, read all of the instructions, and checked my answers for correctness. I thought that if I could do an assignment in 10 minutes, then the students should be able to do it in 50 minutes. I decided that the assignments were not too long and should not require much time to complete.
I still needed to figure out what was taking so long for the assignments to be completed. While I was presenting to a class a few days later I asked the students what eight multiplied by seven is. I waited for a response, none came. I turned and looked at the students to see that they were all entering 8 x 7 into calculators. After a while the students started to give me the answer I was looking for. I thought that answers to questions like what is eight multiplied by seven should be automatic at the high school level. Having to use calculators was costing students time and making assignments seem longer. I decided to observe how often students use calculators on a problem and try to get a feel for the extra time spent entering things into them that they should already know. I had students work a multi-step problem on the whiteboard as I watched. I found that students seemed to know what to do, but used the calculator to perform all calculations. I observed that using the calculator to do simple calculations cost students from one to two minutes on every problem. If each assignment has around 25 problems, this is taking students an extra 25 to 50 minutes to complete an assignment.
I saw that students were using calculators to do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Due to the time that this was taking my students to complete assignments, I decided to implement a “mathematics daily basics” program. Each day, students are given five minutes to answer the questions on the whiteboard. These exercises are designed help students understand the basic rules for each of the four basic operations and learn to do simple operations quickly. I have noticed students completing work faster, and seem more confident in their answers. I feel that understanding the basics of mathematics, or any subject, is vital to understanding more advanced concepts. When students understand, their attitude changes toward mathematics, and they begin to enjoy it.
I’m not saying that calculators have no place in the classroom. Calculators open the door to solve more advanced problems and can enrich student learning. The goal of technology is to make life more efficient, not to make problems take longer. The debate on when it is appropriate to use calculators in a classroom is still going on, but professionals on both sides agree that students need to be able to perform basic operations without a calculator.
Bradley Shaw
Sorenson’s Ranch School