How to Teach Mental Math

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Mental math is an important skill for anyone to have. There are lots of techniques that we can use to efficiently and successfully teach mental math. Here are some strategies and ideas.

Teaching Mental Math

Mental math is a great way to stimulate and train the mind. A person who practices mental math will find that their mind works more quickly and efficiently in general. It improves students' number sense which is vital for being good at a wide variety of topics in math, helps them complete simple calculations rapidly without the help of a calculator for convenience, and confirm mentally whether the number given by a calculator makes sense. Better mental math skills lead to higher scores on tests, greater perceived intelligence, and greater confidence.

There are some general strategies that can be helpful for teaching mental math. This lesson will summarize some of those strategies.

Verbalizing Mental Processes

One of the most important strategies for teaching mental math is for the students and teachers to verbalize the processes involved in solving problems. By making the steps in solving a problem explicit, it can help students figure out how to do it and train the brain to use the best techniques possible. One student speaking aloud the technique in a group can teach another, and teachers can use this method to provide direct instruction on mental math. It can also help students make the mental processes explicit, and better refine them. For example, when we add 18 and 13, most of us add the two tens, take two away from the three to make a third ten, and then add one to make 31. This may seem obvious, but it isn't so obvious to a young child.

Math Facts

Another important part of learning mental math is for students to practice learning math facts. While there is significantly less emphasis on rote memorization in modern pedagogy, and for good reason, mental math is perhaps the only area where memorization is still vital. That's because the human brain can only hold so many things in its short-term memory at once. The more numbers you hold in your head, the harder it is to be successful at solving problems. By memorizing certain math facts, such as the times tables, we make mental math far quicker.

This also allows students to solve more complex mental math problems they wouldn't otherwise be able to because they don't have to break down every little part of the problem into even smaller pieces. Math facts can be learned through practice, or through direct memorization. However, either way, a student's ability to remember the answer to very simple math problems will improve their mental math skills markedly.

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