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Diagnosing the math plague

By Leslie Vryenhoek | Sept. 28, 2006

Dr. Sherry Mantyka has spent years testing and monitoring math learners, identifying why they struggle, and formulating strategies to help overcome mathematical roadblocks. Now the director of Memorial University’s Mathematics Learning Centre believes she has formulated effective – though not always popular – strategies that could benefit math students of all ages.

She will discuss these problems and their solutions on Thursday, Sept. 28, during a noon-1 p.m. lecture in room A-1049, Arts and Administration Building, as part of the Cognitive Science Lecture Series.

Dr. Mantyka explains that back in 1988, the province instituted a placement test to confirm or refute the notion that students were graduating high school with inadequate math skills. “The results were unambiguous. There was a huge pre-requisite skill deficit.”

 The university subsequently established the Mathematics Learning Centre to give students who did poorly on that test a chance to gain foundational skills through individualized diagnosis and study. 
Over time, Dr. Mantyka discovered a consistent trend: students could understand and perform certain mathematical tasks, but when they moved on to a more complex equation, they began to make mistakes in areas they had previously mastered.

Perplexed as to why bright, capable learners with strong achievement in other areas had these problems, she turned to cognitive psychologist Dr. Michael Rabinowitz, who explained that the human brain has large capacity to store information, but minimal capacity for active processing. Therefore, students did better if they learned the skill so well that it came automatically, instead of requiring conscious thought. The two professors set about finding ways to apply the concept of automaticity to math education.

 “If students don’t acquire math skills to the level of automaticity, which is measured by accuracy and speed of finding the right answer, then they have trouble,” Dr. Mantyka  explained. “Students first have to gain an understanding of the math. Then they have to do repetitious drills to get fast and accurate before they move on to the next level of sophistication.” 
Dr. Mantyka has set down the methods that she and her colleagues have found most effective in a book called The Math Plague, set to be released this winter. The book is intended for teachers, parents and students or anyone else who wants to remedy math problems long before the university stage.