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Is your c la

Guidelines for enhancing the development of

strategies for mental computation

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

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Is your classroom mental?

classroom and have a discussion with

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.

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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,

Figure 2: Subtraction question - sample strategies for mental computation.

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Is your classroom mental?

Figure 3: Various modes of presentation sample strategies for mental computation.

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).

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Is your classroom mental?

Nick (Figure 3) is an example of a student who Principles for ensuring a 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.

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Is your classroom mental?

Heirdsfield, A. (2005) One teachers role in promoting

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
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:
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. 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
Julie Macpherson
Bebout, H. (1990). Childrens symbolic representation University of Melbourne
of addition and subtraction word problems.
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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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