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strategies for mental computation

W

ithout pen, paper or calcu- levelling approach like that of David

lator how would you work (Figure 1). The four mental computa-

out the answer to this ques- tion strategies shown in Figure 1 may

Emilia Mardjetko and tion - 46+68? Now take 15 away from 32. be similar to those you have seen

utilised by your students.

Julie Macpherson What methods did you employ? For You may have also observed

the addition question did you first add 40 students using alternative methods.

put a strong case for and 60 together then add six plus eight It is important to consider the accu-

and combine the 100 with 14just like racy and efficiency of various mental

an emphasis on Steve in Figure 1? This method of split- computation strategies and this can be

ting both numbers, using knowledge of useful to discuss with students. Some

developing mental place value, and then adding the parts of strategies may result in errors. For

each number working from left to right example, when working out the addi-

calculation strategies (tens before units) is referred to as left to tion question given in Figure 1 it is

right separated place value. Perhaps you likely that some students may have

with students and used Lauras strategy (Figure 1), leaving place value errors resulting in confu-

68 whole, then adding 40 then 6. In this sion between tens and ones. Working

suggest helpful case you have used the left to right out the subtraction question may result

aggregation method, which also has a in a smaller from larger bug error if

teaching approaches right to left mode. Maybe you simply 32 15 = 23 was given as the response

visualised the vertically written algorithm (Heirdsfield, 2004).

to achieve this. and carried or borrowed tens. What Out of curiosity ask other

strategy would students in your class- colleagues and family members what

room utilise? Would they count between, strategies they would employ. What

eg. count on ten six times and then add did you discover from your research? It

eight, round up or down similar to is likely that a range of strategies were

Jacquis approach (Figure 1) or utilise a used. Try this activity in your own

Is your classroom mental?

your students which focuses on the

strategies they used. Discussion about

different strategies will enable students

to consider different approaches and

work towards development of efficient

mental strategies for computation.

Utilising a variety of strategies and

methods for computation will enable

students to develop a better under-

standing of computation processes and

number sense (Reys, 1985).

Figure 1: Addition question - sample strategies for mental computation

McIntosh (2002, 2005) commented on year Queensland study of Grade 2 and 4 children found

the change in focus of recent Australian the number of children utilising the counting strategy

Federal and State Government educa- decreased over time, however it was still in use by some

tion policy documents with a shift of the lower scoring students (Cooper, Heirdsfield & Irons

away from students being taught algo- 1996).

rithms for all mathematical

computations (which includes both

written and mental computation), to a What is mental computation?

policy centred on development of a Mathematical computation consists of both written

variety of strategies for mental compu- computation and mental computation. The strategies for

tation. Kamii (1994) also suggested mental computation can be used to check the reason-

widespread support for mental compu- ableness of written computations. Mental computation

tation in the belief that an early has two distinguishing characteristics; it produces an

emphasis on learning algorithms was a exact answer, and the procedure is performed mentally,

mathematical health hazard that without using external devices such as pencil and paper

inhibits childrens own numerical (Reys, 1984, p. 548).

thinking, retarding development of Mental computation provides a valuable and useful

number sense and adding to childrens connection between problem solving and mathematical

confusion with place value. concepts but the principal focus of mathematical compu-

Bebout (1990) reported that very tation in the primary school has been the written pen and

young children have effective strategies paper algorithms.

for mental computation for solving These written algorithms impact on mental computation

basic addition and subtraction prob- and a common strategy used for mental computation is

lems. These pre-school strategies for visualisation of the written pen and paper algorithm (see

mental computation rely on modelling Lynda & Gloria in Figure 2). Utilising this strategy of visu-

or counting processes and continue to alising a written algorithm can be prone to error and

develop beyond preschool (Carpenter shows little number sense. In Figure 2, Kaye demon-

& Moser, 1982, 1983, 1984; Hiebert, strates a good understanding of number relationships to

1982, cited in Bebout, 1990). A two- solve the problem 32-15.

Is our classroom mental?

Strategies for mental computation and effective mental computation strategies are those

the development of number sense that sequentially build up to the answer.

For example, refer to the variety of strategies for

McIntosh (2004) found that up to 20% of upper mental computation utilised by the students in

primary students continue to use counting by ones Figure 1.

for two digit addition and subtraction questions. Research has shown a targeted program can

In a Victorian study of Grade 3-5 classes where result in a rapid improvement in the development

students were tested with mathematical items for of strategies for mental computation.

which they had not been taught algorithms, two A Queensland study of one Year 3 class incor-

major types of strategies were observed. porated a ten-week program of teaching mental

Attempting to obtain an answer purely through computation strategies for two and three digit

visualization of the written pen and paper algo- addition and subtraction and included pre and

rithm like Lynda and Gloria (Figure 2) was the post interviews. The focus of this study was to

least successful strategy, whereas students who determine what issues impacted on mental

understood the question, like Kaye, were able to computation performance and the development

manufacture legitimate and effective strategies for of higher order thinking. In addition to the quality

mental computation (Mackinlay, 1996). of lessons and tasks, a major factor involved the

Kamii, Lewis, and Jones, (1991) believe that rote establishment of connections and encouragement

learning of written pen and paper algorithms by chil- of strategic thinking. These connections and

dren places the focus of learning on the algorithm strategic thinking practices were developed by a

rather than the development of number sense. well-planned teaching sequence of activities and

Algorithms may reinforce the concept that follow up discussions.

every column in a written place value is a units or Following the study, students were re-intro-

ones column. duced to written pen and paper algorithms and

(Resnick, 1986; Wearne, 1990 cited in Markovits were noted to approach these with better under-

& Sowder, 1994) argue that the development of standing (Heirdsfield, 2005). Successful

place value and number sense requires an under- mathematical instruction develops flexibility,

standing of the relationship between two exploration and justification of strategies by

numbers. students (Kamii & Dominick, 1998 cited in

Hope and Sherrill (1987) contend that several Heirdsfield, 2005). Reys (1985) believes there are

factors impact on an individuals ability to demon- solid reasons supporting the development of

strate strategies for mental computation. These mental computation strategies and these relate to

include their available strategies, number relation- the fact that as daily mathematical transactions

ship knowledge and number manipulation skills. become more automated and computerised there

Hitch (1977, 1978 and Merkel & Hall, 1982, cited is less of a requirement to perform written pen

in Hope & Sherrill, 1987) believes that the most and paper algorithms. There is a need however,

Is your classroom mental?

for individuals to have the strategies for mental We have observed that mode of presentation of

computation and estimation skills to be able to items does in fact affect the performance of

check these automated calculations. students. We will now outline some different

modes of presentation and possible effects on

students ability to correctly perform mental

Mode of presentation can affect computation. The problem 46 + 39 is presented

three different ways in Figure 3. The first example

strategy use and accuracy has the teacher presenting the problem orally, the

Mathematical questions can be presented in a second has a horizontal presentation and the final

variety of modes. This includes oral, vertical and example is written vertically.

horizontal, as well as items in context. In some Commonly, students as Gary in Figure 3, utilise

classrooms, items are presented orally by the the strategy which is similar to that of the written

teacher and in other cases students work from pen and paper algorithm. For the orally presented

material visually presented on the board or in a question, Gary visualises the steps he would

textbook. In many cases, both methods are used perform using pen and paper. When the problem

interchangeably, with no consideration given as is written horizontally he visualises the problem

to whether the mode of presentation affects vertically to perform the mental calculation.

students performance. Research has indicated When performing mental calculation place

that the mode of presentation of items can affect value may be ignored. Numerals may be separated

both student performance on mental computa- with students moving from right to left, as Gary

tion and the choice of mental computation has in Figure 3. However, other students who use

strategy. Visualisation of written pen and paper this strategy may move from left to right when

algorithms resulted in higher error rates, with this presented with oral items. It is argued that higher

strategy used least by higher performing students performance on orally presented items may indi-

(Reys, Reys, Nohda & Emori 1995). One explana- cate success in applying more flexible mental

tion of the errors made when visualising the strategies (McIntosh, Nohda, Reys & Reys, 1995).

written pen and paper algorithms is that the

carry operation can be quite problematic for

mental imaging, refer to Gloria in Figure 2 (Hitch,

1977, 1978; Merkel & Hall, 1982, cited in Hope

& Sherrill, 1987).

Is your classroom mental?

has a range of strategies for dealing with mental classroom!

computation. Good number sense enables him to

choose efficient strategies for performing mental 1. Incorporate class discussions to allow

computation in a number of ways. students to share and model a variety of

These findings support the inclusion of various strategies for mental computation to

modes of presentation within your teaching develop confidence in their ability to try

program to ensure that a wide variety of strategies alternative strategies for solving questions.

are explored and developed. Importantly, 2. Delay formal teaching of pen and paper

students must discuss their own spontaneous algorithms until students have flexible

strategies with one another so that a broad range of mental computation strategies.

strategies can be recognised and considered for 3. Accept and acknowledge students sponta-

future use. neous and creative strategies. Be open to

these strategies.

4. Promote the importance of mental compu-

Teaching implications tation by conducting a structured program

to build and develop skills with a particular

If we want students to develop good strategies for focus on checking the reasonableness of

performing mental computations then it is impor- answers.

tant to consider how the development of 5. Provide students with a range of questions

strategies might be incorporated into the class- which are embedded within real life expe-

room. This is important to promote as: riences.

pen and paper abilities do not correlate to 6. Provide students with various modes of

mental computation abilities, presentation including oral, horizontal and

dependence on visualisation of the written vertically presented questions.

algorithm relies on good short term memory

and accurate number facts.

individual assessment (teacher student inter- Conclusion

view) is required in order to determine

students mental computation abilities with Development of strategies for mental compu-

additional discussion on strategy application. tation is extremely important for primary

school students. Students should be given

opportunities to build their own strategies for

mental computation, while verbalising and

verifying the appropriateness of the strategies

applied. Less emphasis should be placed on

the teaching of the written pen and paper

algorithm and more emphasis should be

directed towards the identification and devel-

opment of students spontaneous strategies for

mental computation. Generally, students who

have greater flexibility in their mental compu-

tation strategies provide a greater

understanding of the underlying mathematical

Figure 4: Students sharing strategies for mental computation. concepts and have higher success rates.

Is your classroom mental?

Activities conducted within the classroom understanding in mental computation. In H. Chick &

should encourage effective and spontaneous J. Vincent (Eds). Proceedings of the 29th Conference

strategies and these will form the basis for of the International Group for the Psychology of

Mathematics Education, Vol. 3 ,

understanding mathematical processes and pp. 113120. Melbourne: PME.

concepts. Hope, J. & Sherrill, J. (1987) Characteristics of unskilled

and skilled mental calculators. Journal for Research

in Mathematics Education, 18 (2), 98111.

Kamii, C. (1994). Young Children Continue to Reinvent

Resources: Arithmetic 3rd grade: Implications of Piagets

Theory. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kamii, C., Lewis, B. & Jones, S. (1991) Reform in

1. McIntosh, A. (2004). Mental computation: primary mathematics education: A constructivist

a strategies approach. Hobart: Department view. Education Horizons, Fall, 1926.

Mackinlay, M. (1996) Childrens Informal Written

of Education (available from the Computation Methods. Paper presented at the joint

Tasmanian Department of Education for conference of the Educational Research Association

$28 including P&P). (ERA) and the Australian Association for Research in

Education (AARE), Singapore, 2529 November,

This folder contains a step-by-step develop- 1996. Available:

ment of mental computation and estimation http://www.aare.edu.au/96pap/makn96177.text

McIntosh, A. (2002) Developing Informal Written

skills for all primary school levels and docu-

Computation . Paper presented at the Annual

ments research and grading scales of skill Conference of the Australian Association for

achievement. Research in Education, University of Queensland,

Brisbane, December 2002. Available:

http://www.aare.edu.au/02pap/mc102517.htm

2. Stacey, K., Varughese, N. & Marston, K. McIntosh, A. (2004). Mental Computation: A Strategies

(2003) Teaching mental and written Approach. Module 1 - Introduction.

Hobart: Department of Education.

computation CD, University of Melbourne. McIntosh, A. (2005). Developing Computation . Hobart:

(an online sample can be viewed at Department of Education, Tasmania.

http://extranet.edfac.unimelb.edu.au/DSM Markovits, Z. & Sowder, J. (1994). Developing number

sense: an intervention study in Grade 7. Journal for

E/tmwc/index.shtml; Research in mathematics Education, 25 . No 1, 4-29.

(available from AAMT office) Reys, R. E. (1984). Mental computation and estimation:

Past, present and future. Elementary School Journal,

This CD includes:

84, 546-557.

mental methods used by children Reys, B. (1985) Mental computation. Arithmetic Teacher,

including QuickTime movies 32 (6), 43-46.

Reys, R., Reys, B., Nohda, N. & Emori, H. (1995) Mental

explanations of common errors computation performance and strategy use of

teaching strategies, activities, work Japanese students in grades 2,4,6 and 8.

sheets and diagnostic tests. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education,

26 (4), 304-326.

Emilia Mardjetko

References University of Melbourne

<mardjetko@edumail.vic.gov.au>

Julie Macpherson

Bebout, H. (1990). Childrens symbolic representation University of Melbourne

of addition and subtraction word problems.

Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, <mc@aia.vic.edu.au>

21,(2), 123131.

Cooper, T., Heirdsfield, A. & Irons, C. (1996) Childrens

mental strategies for addition and subtraction word

problems) In J. Mulligan & M. Mitchelmore (Eds)

Childrens Number Learning. (pp147162).

Adelaide: The Australian Association of Mathematics

Teachers Inc.

Heirdsfield, A. (2004) Inaccurate mental addition and

subtraction: causes and compensation. Focus on

Learning Problems in Mathematics Vol 26 (3),4365.

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