Why is it important to perform basic operations quickly? Higher-level math courses assume that you've mastered certain basic skills, and that those skills are AUTOMATIC. In education, this means that these skills are immediate, instantaneous, and always correct. They've been practiced so much that they require almost no conscious thought or effort to produce the right answer. Do Algebra and other math courses require a lot of careful thought and explanation? Absolutely! And that's why these basic skills need to be automatic, so that you don't get distracted from the more complex mathematical concepts that are new every day.
For more information on the theory of "automaticity" in mathematics (or learning in general), see the following articles:
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