Basic Math Facts: Important and…Miserable?

I was a pretty good student as a child and took some of the higher math classes offered at my high school. I say “higher math classes” because, honestly, I don’t really remember what the highest level was (which is telling). I know I took geometry and pre-calculus. After that…not really sure.

Which has often led to me to reflect on the math I do make the most use of in my real, everyday life: the multiplication tables. Now, as a homeschool dad walking my kids through their elementary math courses, I’m struck also by the importance of nailing down the addition and subtraction tables and realize how these simple facts come up all the time. From dice rolls in a board game to calculating change at the store and countless other little “math facts” we do in our heads every day. Knowing them well sure beats counting them out.

The curse here, of course, is that to get such facts down “cold” takes time. Lots of time. It takes drilling and drilling in one form or another until these facts don’t have to be calculated at all but become like muscle memory whenever we are presented with simple math. The other curse is that often this time – especially if we’re doing flashcards – isn’t just the student’s time, but ours as teachers as well.

And flashcards, for all their benefits, can be miserable.

About a year ago I was pointed to a website (credit to my mother-in-law!) called XtraMath and have been recommending it ever since. It’s free, unobtrusive (i.e. I don’t get extra ads, offers, etc. from them), and simple. My kids do it for five to ten minutes a day and it has dramatically helped them master these basic math facts.

We started in addition. On my own I gave my kids a timed (five minutes), one-hundred question written test and saw how many they got done in the allotted time. Then I began them on XtraMath. The program focuses on a handful of problems each day and pushes the kids for mastery, which they define as the ability to type in the answer within 3 seconds. Each day, the kids work through a series of “tests” in which they do their best to get correct answers within that time constraint, and whenever they miss one (or take too long) the answer appears and they can practice it mentally a few times before proceeding. The same problem will show up immediately, giving them the chance to type in a correct answer, and it will appear again through the course of that day’s program.

It’s not flashy. It’s really like doing flashcards online, except that through some algorithm (undoubtedly, the makers of the site have engaged in “higher math classes”), students are consistently pushed to master more and more problems, slowly moving their way towards complete mastery of all the 1-9 addition problems (or subtraction, etc.). At the end of each session, they get a mastery score and can view a graph showing their progress.

Our experience was that slowly but surely their mastery scores rose, from somewhere in the 30s to the 40s and 50s and, eventually, into the 80s and 90s. We had trouble ever getting to what would be considered “complete” mastery by the program, but I occasionally gave my kids those written one-hundred question tests and saw their scores consistently increase until they could finish under 5 minutes with few, if any, errors.

That was sufficient mastery for me.

I like XtraMath because it isn’t teacher intensive. They like it because they earn an M&M for every percentage point they improve in their mastery score. Their future selves like it because they are mastering their math facts. Everyone wins.

Anyway, this isn’t an advertisement for the site or anything (I’m not really sure how they make any money off their program; no ads and everything I’ve seen has been completely free), but it worked so well for us that I wanted to pass it on to anyone who might find it beneficial. The site can be found here. Let me know if you find it helpful!

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