Evidence Based Education

# NUMBER TALKS

A number talk is a short classroom exercise that involves discussing and brainstorming processes to solve a given math question. This strategy has primarily been used to develop mental math and number sense skills by allowing students to work out the steps needed to solve math problems for themselves, rather than having a teacher outline the procedures for them. As such, number talks may be considered a metacognition strategy, since the ultimate goal of these exercises is to help students view math as a learning process.

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Recently, many educational professionals have begun to advocate for the use of number talks as the best way to teach mathematics. That said, as much as this strategy has become popular in classroom teaching, there are currently no meta studies examining the efficacy of this method or its impact size on student learning. In 2016, Angela Mader-Stewart of Lakehead University did, however, make a preliminary foray into quantifying the effects of number talks in mathematical instruction, ultimately concluding that “number talks is the very best strategy to teach both number sense and math facts at the same time” (Stewart, 115).

This study was a case study and therefore, it did not, in fact, make use of a control group nor did it compare the impact size of results to any other method of teaching math. This paper demonstrated that the students showed an improvement between their pre intervention assessments and their post intervention assessments for the curriculum she covered with number talks. Although these results may appear statistically relevant, the students’ math test results, axiomatically, should have improved after being taught the assessessed curriculum materials, regardless of the strategy actually used to teach them.

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In 2017, Mark Duffy performed another quantitative study on a number talks intervention using secondary students. However, his study, like Mader-Stewart’s, had a small sample size and no control group (Duffy 66). The measured increases in math scores were also low, with the majority of students failing the post intervention assessment on two thirds of the sections and only 60% passing the final third section. Despite the litany of voices endorsing the methods outlined in these texts, Mark Duffy’s 2017 paper, which sought to establish a summative resource for ascertaining the efficacy of number talks, was only able to conclude that the extant data provided insufficient evidence for making such a determination. (Duffy, 73).

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A 2020 randomized control trial, conducted by P, May, examined the efficacy of number talks for grade 5 students. The results showed an effect size of .63 for application skills, an effect size of .65 for accuracy. May (2020) also compared the speed of which students did mental calculations and found that the treatment group reduced the time spent on mental calculations by 31 seconds, from 73 seconds to 42 seconds, resulting in an effect size of 1.6. This paper, therefore represents to the best of my knowledge, the first and only experimental study of Number Talks and it showed statistically significant positive results.

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That said, while the May study is positive, the data should be looked at as preliminary, as to the best of my knowledge, there are no other randomized control trials todate, replicating this work. (2024/10/27 Update)[I conducted a search on the Education Source Database and found 25 peer-reviewed papers. However, based on abstracts, none of these papers appeared to be experimental. Ultimately, as of this moment there exists only a small base of experimental evidence for Number Talks. In my opinion, Number Talks should therefore be looked at as a research based strategy and not yet an evidence-based strategy.

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As previously stated, number talks are essentially a metacognition-strategy, which, according to John Hattie’s (2018) secondary meta-analysis on teaching factors, are high yield teaching tools that shows a mean effect size of .60. Number talks can be an effective tool for diagnosing specific inaccuracies in student understanding, promoting a growth mindset for math, and for increasing student awareness of some fundamental mathematical concepts. However, while there are benefits to the use of number talks, the practice is not without drawbacks, and, as with all educational strategies, there is an appropriate time and place for their best implementation in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, number talks are a departure from direct instruction (another high yield strategy), and therefore they lower the amount of curriculum that can be covered in a limited timeframe. Ultimately, while it may be possible to incorporate number talks as an addendum to regular math instruction, their use should be limited to enrichment and should not supplant teaching methods, like direct instruction and individual practice time, which have been shown in meta analysis to produce the higher increases in math understanding.

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**Updated on 2024/10/27 to correct for an error of interpretation, on the speed effect size for the May (2020) study.

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References:

S, Parish. (2014). Number Talks. Math Solutions.

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J, Hattie. (2018). Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement Visible Learning. Retrieved from <https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/>.

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A, Stewarts. (2016). The Impact of Daily Number Talks on the Development of Mental Math Abilities of Second Graders within a Reform-Based Classroom. Lakehead University. Retrieved from <https://knowledgecommons.lakeheadu.ca/bitstream/handle/2453/4235/StewartA2018m-1b.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>.

Gersten, Chard, Jayanthi, Baker, Morphy, Flojo. (2009). A Meta-analysis of Mathematics Instructional Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities: Technical Report. Instructional Research Institute. Retrieved from <http://3evoie.org/telechargementpublic/usa/gersten2009a.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0c-XjNJoSNy2dDvfWEwOqBl5EqtuFpU5GkW6s4QM7-jpuY90-I85Q5dyI>.

M, Duffy. (2017). Can Frequent Use Of Number Talks Increase The

Comprehension, Understanding, And Fluency Of Fractions, Decimals, And Percentages In Alternative High School Students? Hamline University. Retrieved from <https://digitalcommons.hamline.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5349&context=hse_all>.

May, P. L. (2020). Number Talks Benefit Fifth Graders’ Numeracy. International Journal of Instruction, 13(4), 361–374. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lakeheadu.ca/10.29333/iji.2020.13423a