How One Teaching Practice Ruined Math For Students

MAD MINUTE is a teaching practice widely used in Canada.  It includes having long strips of papers with lists of addition, subtraction, multiplication or division facts on it.  The goal is to get as many math facts correct in one minute as you can.

Blogger Autumn Shaw, age 16, shares her reflections on the years of MAD MINUTE and how it affects her to this day:

It all started in grade 1 when I learned to add.  I’d say its what has led to crying fits, hiding in the bathroom, avoidance techniques (breaking my pencil), stomach aches and just a general hate for math.

This one minute of the day could ruin my whole day.  It was literally the worst minute of the day.  I could do all the questions, I just couldn’t do them in one minute.

Some of the kids could, and they got their Mad Minutes hung on the board, they got stickers, they got glittery pencils.  All I got was a hate for math.

Then there were the teachers that thought 2 minutes a day of Mad Minute was a good idea.  A good idea to give me twice the amount of time to learn I could not do mad minutes was not a good idea.

Of course, another reinforcer to my belief that I could not do math, never could, never will, was the extra-reinforcing practice of passing my paper to the person sitting in front of me to mark.

This was the chance to share with my classmates, I couldn’t do math, never could, never would be able to.  Some of the kids started writing, “YOU SUCK ” on my paper.  This led to me one upping them and me just writing, “I SUCK,” everyday on my math paper.

I don’t know why the teachers thought Mad Minute helped me in math.  It didn’t improve my math, at all.  It did however reinforce everyday that I was not good in math, couldn’t be the fastest in math, never was, never would be, and I was only six years old.  The irony of it all was that I could do math, just not under pressure in a situation that pitted me against the clock and against my peers.

Another torturous part of MAD MINUTE, was the practice of allowing all the students who had 100% each day Monday – Thursday to be exempt from Mad Minutes on Friday.  So, if you didn’t feel like the outcast already, on Fridays, classmates watched me, glaringly obvious that they were good at math, and I wasn’t.  Never was, never would be.

Today, in grade 11 I am in the lowest math class.  Could this be because when I was six I learned I was not good in math, never was, never would be?  There is something to say for that daily reinforcement.  I look back on it and I know, Mad Minutes were not good for me.

I hope there are no teachers out there that continue with MAD MINUTE.  Its not good, not helpful and can have a lasting negative effect on a student.


  1. Scott Shelhart

    August 26, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Sorry to tell you, but this practice is alive and well.

  2. Linda Fahlberg-Stojanovska

    August 26, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I am a professor of mathematics at a university for over 35 years. I love mathematics and I have a PhD in theoretical math. BUT I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND YOU. I do not do “fast math”. I want to think – even just about ad

  3. Linda Fahlberg-Stojanovska

    August 26, 2012 at 11:24 am

    I am a professor of mathematics at a university for over 35 years. I love mathematics and I have a PhD in theoretical math. BUT I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND YOU. I do not do “fast math”. I want to think – even just about addition (and apparently about hitting enter in one of the fields above since that posted). What a horrible idea – mad minutes – not just for math, but for anything.

  4. des

    August 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    what the hell is Mad Minute?

  5. Peter Kronfeld

    August 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Is there any empirical evidence that Mad Minutes has improved any students’ understanding of math? Seems only to provide banal practice for those already capable, and nothing more than embarrassment, frustration, and dejection for those students in need of support to become capable.

  6. DC

    August 27, 2012 at 12:30 am

    They were simply called “drills” when I was a kid. We practiced them a lot before we had timed tests. I was never the fastest, but I felt compelled to always do better. Yeah, sometimes it was tough, but shouldn’t it be? Now, as an adult, I don’t (often) pause for multiplication up to 12×12. Like simple addition and subtraction, it is there. I am no math whiz- not by any measure, but this was part of my learning that contributed to basic math fluency. I often wish young people at checkouts had that skill. As an educator, I agree that many of our practices are in desperate need of re-working, but are we seriously going to abandon knowing basic math because it is hard? How about we focus on how we administer the task, and use practice to build up to it? I am also concerned with the implication that we shouldn’t celebrate excellence for fear of isolating those who aren’t. I fear in our rush to create a utopian educational environment, we are simply expecting less and less of our students, both educationally and emotionally.

  7. Caitlin

    August 27, 2012 at 12:40 am

    In elementary school my class did similar activities. Even if you got all the math problems right, you weren’t rewarded unless you were one of the very fastest in the class. There was a bulletin board with a race car for each student that moved forward as they got faster and faster.

    I was typically in the middle of the pack even though my other grades were at the top of the class. The whole ordeal was very stressful for me. The idea of charting success of any other type of grading or subject was completely taboo because it might damage some students motivation.

    Despite never being at near the fastest on timed math tests (addition, subtraction, multiplication or division), after one year of Algebra, and one year of Geometry (typically there are two years of Algebra and a year of Trigonometry), I took university calculus at the state university in my hometown and got one of the highest grades in the class – when I was 16.

  8. tobie castelbaum

    August 27, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I am 85 plus years old and my first “arithmetic faux pas” occured when I was in first grade – teacher asked “if 1 and 1 = 2 what does 2 and 2 equal – in my “thinking process” I answered “3″ – and that was the end of my career in mathmatics – to boot – in my adulthood I worked in the Acounting Department of a major corporation – thank goodnes for calculators ! and I do “balance my checkbook” using all the technology available to me !

  9. Carrie Schmeck

    August 27, 2012 at 11:09 am

    All of my three kids suffered through similar drills in elementary school. My oldest ended up with a full academic college scholarship–not in math, but still. She ended up being a math tutor in high school.

    My oldest son couldn’t get even half of those drills completed. Today he is studying engineering and loves Calculus. Those drills aren’t “math,” they are arithmetic. Calculators made all the difference.

    While I understand the intent of the drills, I don’t like the reward system nor the pressure nor the results for those who don’t excel, as voiced above. Excellent to practice, not so excellent to define students.

  10. Juan Valdez

    August 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    A sucky teacher is a sucky teacher is a sucky teacher. They ruin everything.

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  12. Shari

    August 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Research shows that becoming fluent in basic facts (being able to answer automatically without pausing to calculate one-digit problems) is predictive of future success in math. But the key to becoming fluent is to learn strategies that make solving the problems easier. Fluency shouldn’t be expected from the very start, as your teacher seemed to expect. You’ll start slow and gradually build speed over time.

    Tests that require students to answer as many as they can in a set time can be good, but students shouldn’t have to compete against their peers. Instead, students should compete against themselves while also being taught strategies that help them first calculate then automatically know the basic facts.

  13. Gwen

    August 28, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    I love Mad Minutes and so do my kids.. They are not even remotely competitive… It gives me the chance to teach the idea of competing with oneself only and beating your former self. Facts are a teensy part of math, of course, but they matter to some degree. It sounds like your teacher was trying too hard to externally motivate you, which usually fails and did in your case.

  14. Lori Cullen

    September 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Thanks to Edudemic for sharing this blog written by my daughter! Right or wrong, the practice is worth analyzing. Sounds like it is difficult to disagree that knowledge of basic facts or ability to efficiently get the right answer to basic facts (Calculator) is an important skill. I think perhaps, the teaching practice is in need of question. This isn’t to say that maybe for some students, this practice may be helpful, but as written by my daughter, its not good for all. Lori Cullen

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  16. Cally T

    September 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    This is a very interersting topic. Thinking back to when I was a grade three student, the mad minute seemed intimidating at first. We started off with having to complete the “zero” times table in one mintue (0-12). Starting off with the simplier times table gave me confidence. I do not remember how often we did the mad minute, maybe every Friday, but I made sure to practice and/or learn the next time table and practice, practice,practice them so that I was ready for the weekly mad mintue. To this day i still remember my multiplication/division well and many of my classmates including myself enjoyed the competition of the mad minute. The mad minute was healthy competition in the sense it made me and my other classmates want to learn the next time table and memorize them so we could keep up with our other classmates. Now I understand this may be very difficult for someone who does not understand the math that is needed for the mad minute. The mad minute may be a good idea for when students already know how to do the math and are looking to perfect it. To this day i still think of the mad minute and thought it made me want to work harder to learn my math.

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  19. momof2

    December 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    As a parent, I cannot begin to express, without ranting, how much I despise minute math. It ruined every school night for my daughter and our whole family for four years. And yet she got A’s in math the whole time. Minute math becomes a scourge for the bright 6 year old who cannot focus well enough yet. By second grade, the damage was done. The students who can parrot the facts but cannot do the math are rewarded in class and on the bulletin boards. But they receive C grades and score middle of the range in achievement tests. My husband could not do minute math but by high school had to do independent studies in math because he’d already done all the math they offered by 10th grade (calculus II was the extent they could offer). And got a perfect score on the math SAT. But he was “dumb” throughout elementary school because he was so bored with minute math and its ilk that he just endured it and didn’t care. I am a student who scored well on the math sat (690 out of 800 in my time), got A’s in math, did calculus in high school, but not in my husband’s league. But I would have been great at minute math. Just my personality. But with my husband and kids’ experiences, I really think it’s a scourge. I hate it.