Carolyn Jones/EdSource
Jami Jorgensen, a math teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hayward, teaches her students songs to help memorize math formulas.

‏Jami Jorgensen is the human jukebox of quadratic equations.

“Anything that’s an algorithm, I have a song for it,” said the energetic middle-school math teacher in Hayward Unified, in the east Bay Area. “I must have 100 songs. At least.”

Jorgensen, who teaches 7th and 8thgrade math, leads her students in ditties, chants and dance moves to help them remember basic formulas in algebra and geometry. A lesson on monomial exponent rules becomes:

“You thought we were done

Having fun,

But if your exponent is zero,

Your base simplifies to one.”

Jorgensen said that weaving music into math lessons has boosted her students’ test scores, enhanced their understanding of the larger concepts, improved the classroom climate and accomplished something few would think possible of middle-school math: Made it fun.

Many studies, including one in the journal Memory and Cognition, have shown that information set to music is easier to remember. It’s how epics like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were passed down through the centuries, and how toddlers learn their ABCs and 123s. People with Alzheimer’s disease might not be able to remember their spouse, but can often recite songs from their youth.

A 2009 study by a UC Davis psychology researcher, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, found that the region of the brain that stores memories is the same region that processes music and emotion. In short, music, memory and emotion are closely linked.

“Song and dance serve well to help us remember lyrics, or in this case math formulas,” said Patricia Swanson, a math education professor at San Jose State University. “And, indeed, there are strong conceptual connections between math and music. Perhaps the most obvious one at the elementary level is rhythm and the value of the musical note — 4/4 time, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes … ”

Jorgensen observes this daily in her classes at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where 75 percent of the students come from low-income families and 72 percent speak English as a second language.

On and off throughout their lessons, students sing math formulas and do math-related dance moves. Some of the songs are pop tunes in which Jorgensen swapped out “lyrics about Bacardi and ice” and replaced them with lines about “n” factors and variables.

Others are songs that she and students make up. With an associate’s degree in musical theater, Jorgensen has a natural affinity for singing and dancing and knows firsthand how they can aid in memorization and elevate one’s spirits.

Such musical activities lead students to enjoy math, which in turn leads them to learn more, Jorgensen said. And during tests, remembering math songs helps them relax and feel good, so they’re less likely to panic, she said.

Seventh-grader Mia Espiritu, one of Jorgensen’s students, said she never enjoyed math until this year. She and most of her classmates in fourth period had scored below grade level on previous standardized tests, but Mia said she’s finally understanding the concepts.

“Ms. J.J. teaches us new things every day, so it’s not boring,” she said. “And if I get stuck, I always have a song in my mind that helps me remember. I used to not get math. Now I do get it.”

Her classmate Guadalupe Gonzalez agreed. Math was always a struggle, but now she enjoys it.

“The songs help explain it better,” she said.

Memorizing basic formulas can make it easier for students to grasp larger, more abstract mathematical concepts because students’ minds aren’t mired in the minutiae, Jorgensen said. For example, it’s easier to understand the square root of 36 if you already know the answer to 6 multiplied by 6.

Jorgensen’s method has yielded results. In her 8th-grade geometry class from last year, 23 of her 40 students had perfect scores on the Smarter Balanced exam, and in the 7th-grade algebra class, every student exceeded the standards, she said. Seven of those students had perfect scores.

“It makes me excited about the students’ futures,” she said. “It opens doors for them and shows what they can achieve if they put in the effort.”

Mark Ellis, a math education professor at California State University, Fullerton, said he observed elementary teachers in Japan using songs and chants to successfully teach math to their students and he has used music to help low-performing middle-school students learn their multiplication tables.

Music in a classroom can relax students, take some pressure off and help teachers forge a cultural connection to their students, he said. He cited a 2014 article in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics about teachers who were highly successful using songs, chants and music to motivate students in underserved communities.

But it’s not the end of the story, he said.

“Music itself cannot teach kids to understand mathematics,” he said. “Music can help students improve dramatically, but ultimately math is not about memorization. It’s about reasoning, seeing patterns, making conjectures. It’s about meaning.”

Memorizing formulas will only be effective in the long run if students understand the concepts underlying the formulas, he said. Ideally, students should be able to come up with formulas on their own, with guidance from the teacher. In some cases, it’s not even necessary to memorize formulas because so many students have calculators on their phones, he said.

But either way, students with self-confidence and a solid math education in middle school are well positioned to thrive in the more challenging and abstract math classes they’ll encounter in high school and college, he said. Middle school math is the critical juncture where students transition from arithmetic to more complex concepts about proportions, ratios and multiplication, which are the basis of advanced level math courses.

Eighth-grader Jennifer Silva, a student of Jorgensen’s who also helps her teach younger students, said she’s enjoyed math so much she wants to pursue it in college.

“Doing the chants helps me remember what we learned,” she said. “When you’re in a test and you feel stressed, you just think of a chant and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’ And then it’s kind of fun.”

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  1. Grantson, Kwamina Bright 5 months ago5 months ago

    I did employ similar methods with local Ghanian songs by replacing their lyrics with math formulars and ideas. My students enjoyed the lesson. To the extent the my research in my degree programme is on Maths and Music related stuffs

  2. fitz 5 months ago5 months ago

    Great ideas, STEAM.

  3. SteveH 5 months ago5 months ago

    Remembering is always good, so when does memorization become remembering? When you use it. When I was in third grade using flash cards to memorize the times table, it turned into remembering because I had to use it over and over and over on many different problem variations. This INDIVIDUAL homework (p-sets) forms the basis of understanding in math through college. The process is NEVER rote. Mastery of P-sets defines understanding. Engagement is nice, but … Read More

    Remembering is always good, so when does memorization become remembering? When you use it. When I was in third grade using flash cards to memorize the times table, it turned into remembering because I had to use it over and over and over on many different problem variations. This INDIVIDUAL homework (p-sets) forms the basis of understanding in math through college. The process is NEVER rote. Mastery of P-sets defines understanding. Engagement is nice, but it’s neither necessary or sufficient. The process is NOT NATURAL. You have to push even for the most engaged students.

    There are many levels of understanding, and for the lowest grades, many educational pedagogues never see the understanding that takes place with mastery of basic skills. They’ve forgotten what takes place. There are inches (12), yards (3), ounces (16), dozens (12), minutes (60), hours (24), quarters (25 cents), and so much more. Mastery is not simple and it’s never rote.

    Mastery of the basic math algorithms is also never rote. How many 27s go into 835 for long division? I distinctly remember having to do things like 2*27 and 3*27 in my head. We learned estimation left to right and exact calculation right to left. Everyone knew that 27 was 20 + 7. We didn’t make a big deal of “understanding.” Once you get to the abstract world of algebra, understanding is much more clearly tied to mastery of homework. In 8th grade algebra, we students had to list the rule or identity we used for each step of our problem solving. This was not some vague explanation using words.

    This is not about conceptual understanding which is, well, conceptual. It’s one thing to conceptually understand how seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years work, but quite another thing to understand the dirty details of doing all variations of time problems. That’s where higher level understading takes place.

    There is so much more going on here beyond memorization or not. When I was young, I got to calculus in high school with absolutely no help from my parents. This is not possible now with the low slope NON-STEM CCSS math that starts in Kindergarten, and where “distinguished” only means no remediation for college algebra. Even for my “math brain” son, I had to enforce mastery of the basics at home for K-8. Once he got to high school and their proper (and traditional) math AP Calculus sequence, I had to do nothing.
    For many students, it’s all over by the typical 7th grade math split and no form of Pre-AP algebra will fix things. CCSS was let off the hook in K-8 and allowed to put the onus on students and parents. In the article, why were some kids taking geometry in 8th grade and some in middle school still trying to master the times table? Ask us parents of the best math students. We know. Tracking is now hidden at home or with tutors. Use music or hand puppets or flash cards – whatever works. Push and enforce mastery of proper homework and p-sets. The school won’t do it in K-6 and then any sort of STEM career will be over by 7th grade, and no amount of Pre-AP in ninth grade will fix that low slope.
    Ask us parents of the best students what we now have to do at home. If you think we are pushy helicopter parents, then your kids will be the losers.

  4. Dr. Catherine Prindle 5 months ago5 months ago

    I have long used music in many academic arenas. The most concerning for me, with music in math or various other areas, is that a lot of administrators either don’t know or don’t understand the benefits of such. Hope this will help move education along in a positive manner.

  5. judiAU 5 months ago5 months ago

    Those are stunning results. I’d love to buy those songs.

  6. ann 5 months ago5 months ago

    “Ideally, students should be able to come up with formulas on their own, with guidance from the teacher. In some cases, it’s not even necessary to memorize formulas because so many students have calculators on their phones, he said.” What malarkey. “Memorizing basic formulas can make it easier for students to grasp larger, more abstract mathematical concepts because students’ minds aren’t mired in the minutiae, Jorgensen said.” Exactly why memorization is important; it’s brain science.