Insights Blog

Urgent insight: The problem of fractured math

At a Glance


Urgent insights keep us up at night.

It happened in the early days of the pandemic, as we pored over math learning indicators for millions of students. We saw that when schools closed, learning for huge swaths of students went off track — but while higher-income students recovered quickly, learning remained at record lows for those from low-income households. We worked with top leaders to sound the alarm on how the pandemic was exacerbating educational inequities.

We felt similar urgency when we analyzed the data around the traditional approach to address missed learning — remediation. Our data on student learning during the pandemic backed up a more effective approach to address missed learning, counterintuitively skipping remediation and instead providing grade-level instruction with just-in-time, tailored support.

We’re back, with another urgent insight about supporting students who’ve fallen behind. The headline: don’t skip.  

Our most recent findings show that the most successful students on our platform complete math lessons in a coherent sequence, progressing through the big ideas of math and avoiding skipping around. In other words, “fracturing” math instruction by skipping around is potentially leading to far more unnecessary struggles.

<cms-image-title>Figure 1: Correlation between skipping and rate of repeated struggle in math<cms-image-title>

Source: Zearn; data includes representative sample of 600,000 students who used Zearn programmatically each week over the 2020-21 academic year

Our data also shows that skipping is correlated with even higher degrees of struggle for students in high-poverty schools, relative to low-poverty schools.

<cms-image-title>Figure 2: Correlation between skipping and rate of repeated struggle in math, by school type<cms-image-title>

Source: Zearn; data includes representative sample of 600,000 students who used Zearn programmatically each week over the 2020-21 academic year

There is urgency to this insight because while students were being skipped around in their math learning before the pandemic, there’s good reason to think we’re about to see a lot more of that now. 

Why? When a student begins to struggle in math, a common and well-intentioned intervention is to skip content. All too often, traditional remediation means pulling a student from their daily on-grade math instruction to work on previous grade skills. Or, given the unprecedented amount of unfinished learning our students now face, teachers and parents may feel compelled to skip a topic or two in order to move students forward as quickly as possible. And, more often than not, if students are using a digital math platform that isn’t Zearn, they will be skipped around by design, based on the assumption that the fastest way to mastery is to shore up misconceptions as quickly as possible, rather than to proceed coherently to ensure students understand deeply and make connections between concepts. 

The problem is, we are now seeing that skipping content to support students who are struggling could actually be creating more struggle. 

To be clear — this is an insight that needs to be investigated much more deeply. Do students struggle and therefore they are skipped past lessons they can’t complete? Does skipping lead to an incoherent math learning experience, causing students to struggle more? What are the factors that cause students to be skipped? Time constraints? Preparing for assessment? We are currently conducting deeper research into this trend, as right now one thing is clear: repeated struggle and skipping content are deeply linked. 

One thing right now is clear: repeated struggle and skipping content are deeply linked.
<cms-quote-source>Shalinee Sharma<cms-quote-source>

These kinds of insights from our data keep us up at night, because they hold promise for how we educate students, in the context of a pandemic and every day going forward. American kids struggled in math long before classrooms shuttered due to COVID-19, and we think this data could hold big implications for how to better set students on the path to mastery. 

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we want to dig in on this finding, with other researchers, educators, administrators and policymakers to better understand why fractured math instruction is so disruptive to student learning and how we can make the shift students need to ensure a solid foundation in the big ideas. 

That’s why we share our data and partner with experts from diverse fields —- by joining together we can piece together answers to the most important questions about how kids come to understand the “big ideas” in math so they can both catch-up and move forward in their learning. True progress in teaching and learning will come, not from making a single, massive change overnight, but through many small, yet critical, evidence-based tweaks along the way. 

Written by Shalinee Sharma

Shalinee Sharma is the CEO and co-founder of Zearn Math.