If Worksheets Worked, Then Kids Would Have All Their Math Facts Memorized

If Worksheets Worked, Then All Kids Would Have Their Math Facts Memorized

Why math fact games are more engaging, more effective & more motivating than worksheets. Trust.

Teaching strategy: Multi-sensory engagement

Supports: Working memory deficits, low student engagement


The Mad Minute

A few years back, I inherited a Mad Minute book, orange & brown & straight from the 1970s, the format is very familiar to any elementary teacher: a book of mixed math fact worksheets meant to be done in a single, frantic minute.

I did well on these worksheets when I was a kid; I remember how proud I felt beating the clock.

As a teacher, I found there was always a core group of students who hated Mad Minutes. They hated being timed; they couldn't memorize their facts well enough to be successful. Even untimed fact worksheets yield little results for these kiddos- usually those with ADHD, memory & math challenges.

Now, with much more experience with struggling students, I see that the Mad Minute as an idea is as dated as its brown & orange cover. Yes, timed math fact sheets can be used to assess which of your students can do thirty problems in 1 minute, but worksheets crammed with multiplication facts, timed or otherwise, are not reaching all of your students.


If We Give Students Engaging Tasks, They Will Be Engaged

Often ADHD & other learning differences impact students’ working memory, which is like the mind’s whiteboard. Unlike short-term memory, working memory is where we hold information long enough to manipulate it. For example, if you add 12 & 28 in your head, you are using your working memory.

While we only hold information in our working memory for a short period of time, some students, like those with ADHD, struggle to hang on to information long enough to manipulate it. While working memory is different from long-term memory, it is the repeated handling of math facts in working memory that, over time, leads us to memorize things.

Then there are students who will do anything to avoid completing worksheets. They will talk to their friends or organize their desks, & do just about anything but the math work in front of them. Maybe they don’t know their facts, or maybe they do know some of their facts but don’t have the bandwidth to sit down & put pencil to paper. Maybe physically writing is hard for them or they need more sensory input to stay engaged.


Instead of Drill & Kill, Develop Student Fact Fluency with Math Games

Here's why :

  1. Games provide multisensory engagement. When kids play games, they engage with each other & the game itself by talking, listening, & moving the pieces around. Each of the senses at work (touch, sight, speech, hearing) increase student involvement & memory. For students who, like Dory, can't seem to hold anything in their head for too long, games make fact practice kinesthetic & "sticky."
  2. Games give students structure. For students who have attentional challenges or have trouble initiating tasks, games give students a clear way to get started & stay involved. Students know exactly what to do & when.
  3. Games are motivating. Internally motivated students complete their math sheets out of a sense of duty to get the job done. Games, on the other hand, provide both internal & external motivation. Students want to do their best (internal) so they can win (external), but they also have classmates urging them to take their next turn.
  4. Games require strategy. One of my favorite math games, Tic-Tac-Toe Products requires students to think about factors in order to make their next move (& block their opponent from winning). In this case, strategy means strengthening their multiplication know-how.


Math fact games are beneficial for all students, especially those who have trouble with memory & attention. That is why we need to use games in the classroom and, yes, even for homework. Think about how much of a hero you will be if you give students math homework that their parents don’t have to beg & plead to get them to finish...

Here are my 3 go-to fact games that I use every day in my work with struggling math students:

Tic Tac Toe Products: https://www.youcubed.org/task/tic-tac-toe-products... (To download the game board, click “Download Handout.”)

Multiplication Bump: Includes a 10-sided dice template so you can just print & play. http://bookishways.blogspot.com/2013/03/monday-mat...

Multiplication War: https://www.education.com/activity/article/multipl...


Want to learn more about how to develop student fact fluency with math games?