Improving Academic Performance

Embrace Mental Math Throughout Everyday Life

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Apr 06, 2015 @ 01:53 PM

mental-math“I would like to make a case for raising the importance of mental math as a major component in students’ tool kits of mathematical knowledge. Mental math is often associated with the ability to do computations quickly, but in its broadest sense, mental math also involves conceptual understanding and problem solving.” - Cathy Seeley, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President 2004-2006

Every standardized test you’ll have to take has a mathematics component: the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.   Of course, in high school and college, there are almost always core math classes everyone must take. And even if you’re the quintessential “English” person, and as a result desire to become to an English teacher and forget about math forever, most states require that you pass a basic skills test, and that has a mathematics section.  MyGuru has seen its fair share of highly stressed out prospective teachers who are having trouble passing the mathematics portion of Illinois Test of Basic Skills for prospective teachers.

So, in the broadest sense, if you desire to improve your academic performance, achieve higher grades and test scores, and get admitted into better high school, colleges, universities, and graduate schools, the more advanced your math skills, the better. That’s probably obvious.

Beyond school, as you’re making small purchases and considering the attractiveness of two different coupons, considering a large financial decision, or any number of other daily tasks, it’s impossible to get away from mathematics.

I have always considered myself “OK” at mathematics, in the sense that I’ve done every well in math courses and “OK” on standardized tests, but have never felt comfortable in real-life, working with numbers to calculate a tip or the price per square foot of a condo (for example).   That’s just me. But, I’ve worked to get more comfortable.

It turns out that one easy way to build your overall math skill set is simply to embrace mental math skills in everyday life. I find the above statement intuitive based purely on my own experiences, but scientific research has been done which shows that, in fact, employing mental math skills when completing simple arithmetic engages the brain in such a way that it is more likely and/or easier to build more advanced mathematics skills over time.  Put more simply, every time you decide to add 12+66 or calculate 20% of 35 in your head instead of plopping the data into a calculator, you are increasing your chances of understanding more complex mathematics and ultimately scoring higher on standardized math tests in the future.

“These data reveal that the relative engagement of brain mechanisms associated with procedural versus memory-based calculation of single-digit arithmetic problems is related to high school level mathematical competence, highlighting the fundamental role that mental arithmetic fluency plays in the acquisition of higher-level mathematical competence.”

Why Mental Arithmetic Counts: Brain Activation during Single Digit Arithmetic Predicts High School Math Scores

Gavin R. Price,1 Michèle M. M. Mazzocco,2,3 and Daniel Ansari, The Journal of Neuroscience, January 2nd, 2013

What could this mean? Instead of shying away from calculating the tip at a restaurant, or figuring out exactly how much you’ll save by using that 15% coupon, choose to consistently engage and do this type of math in your head.  If you’re looking at a clock, pick two numbers, and then add, subtract, multiply, and divide them.  Do this type of thing once a day for 30 days, and you’ll be surprised how much more comfortable with numbers you become.  You are slowly building your math skills, paving the way for more advanced skills and general comfort and confidence with math.

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