According to Dr. Sherry Mantyka, every year hundreds of high school graduates are admitted to Memorial University with passing grades in mathematics, yet with an actual skill level far below what is required for university-level study. Since 1988, Dr. Mantyka, director of the Mathematics Learning Centre, has been studying this problem and formulating strategies to help overcome mathematical roadblocks.
Dr. Mantyka will discuss these problems and their solutions when she offers a talk called The Math Plague - Learning Strategies for Under-Achievers in Mathematics on Tuesday, Nov. 28 from 8 – 9:30 p.m. The talk will happen in Memorial’s Petro-Canada Hall, School of Music.
Dr. Mantyka began exploring the problem after the province instituted a placement test to determine the math skill level of graduating high school students in the province. “The results were unambiguous. There was a huge pre-requisite skill deficit,” she says.
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.
She worked with cognitive psychologist Dr. Michael Rabinowitz to find out why bright, capable learners ran into this difficulty, and learned that because the human brain has a large capacity to store information, but minimal capacity for active processing, students needed to learn math skills so well that that are automatic.
“The concept of automaticity is used in areas like athletics and music and proven very effective, but the mathematics curriculum has moved away from drills and repetition and toward a much greater emphasis on problem solving.” Dr. Mantyka’s research indicates that students would be better served if both sides of the learning equation were emphasized.
“If students don’t acquire math skills to the level of automaticity, which is measured by speed and accuracy, then they run into trouble,” Dr. Mantyka explained. “Students first have to gain an understanding of the math, but then they have to do repetitious drills to get fast and accurate before they move on to the next level of sophistication.”
Teachers, as well as parents who are concerned about their own children’s’ ability to master mathematics in any grade, will be interested in hearing about the effective – though not always popular – strategies that Dr. Mantyka says could benefit math students of all ages.