Here’s a great question from Wanda:

When I was in grade school, I could not do well on timed math tests, even the basic add/subtract/multiply/divide tests. If I could do it on my own time, I did well.

Now my grandson has the same problem. When we do the flashcards, he can do them very fast but we make it fun also.

Why do they have these timed tests, like 25 problems in 3 minutes?

How can I help him do better?

There’s a wide variation in how people learn math, and in what math-related skills they are stronger or weaker in.

This is because math doesn’t come naturally to the human brain. We are born with a basic sense of very small numbers (“one,” “two” and “many”), but from there learning math requires the brain to build neural connections that Nature didn’t intend.

I explained in depth in this post: Your Brain on Math

As regards “math facts,” lots of people memorize them successfully, but many people have to recompute them each time.

I know my multiplication tables pretty automatically. I’m a math tutor, so perhaps you’re not surprised. And I’m sure the over-practice I’ve had in my line of work drummed them into my neurons.

But to this day I have to recompute many subtraction facts.

17-9 = ?

I still have to think: OK, 17 take-away 10 is 7, so if I take away only 9 the answer must be one higher, therefore it’s 8.

Subtraction, by the way, is arguably the hardest of the four basic operations for the brain to handle. We teach addition first, because it’s the easiest. And then we teach subtraction, which is simply addition in reverse, right?

For a logician or a computer, yes. But for a brain, no. Brains don’t like running in reverse and they don’t do it easily. Many kids learn multiplication more naturally than they learn subtraction.

Math as a subject is logical and hierarchical.

But math as a skill for the human brain to learn is quirky and convoluted and differs from one person to the next.

Back to the times tables. My own son, Matt, is also a math tutor, and Matt still does not know his times tables perfectly.

He has to quickly re-calculate facts such as 8×7 (he thinks: 8×5 = 40 and 8×2 = 16, add them together and get 56).

Matt excels at calculus and physics and had near-perfect SAT scores. He’s also a history major with an encyclopedic memory for names, dates, details of all manner of historical events, not to mention a comprehensive knowledge of science facts, PLUS a photographic memory for statistics on any automobile and most motorcycles you can name.

But he can’t remember his times tables.

I hope Wanda’s grandson continues to enjoy the math he’s doing with her, and that his frustration at not doing well on the timed tests doesn’t turn him off to math. I’m betting that his brain, just like his grandmother’s, just isn’t built to spit back math facts quickly, but this has nothing to do with his ability to excel in mathematics.

photo of self-portrait by my student, Emily