Student Testing Success Linked to Grasp of Basic Math

A study recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience finds that a strong grasp of basic mathematical skills can serve as a good predictor of student success on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. The PSAT is an exam designed to gauge student preparedness for the SAT and is typically administered to kids in ninth and tenth grade.

To reach these conclusions, Daniel Ansari, Associate Professor in Western’s Department of Psychology and a principal investigator at the Brain and Mind Institute, used functional magnetic resonance imaging machines to monitor the brain activity of high school seniors. The MRI highlighted certain areas being utilized by students who were doing simple math exercise, and activity in those regions correlated strongly with their PSAT scores.

“The surprising thing here is that we found both a positive and negative relationship between brain activation during the very elementary, single digit arithmetic tasks and how well they did on the PSAT test, which measures advanced, high school level math skills,” says Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

Those students who showed grater activity in the left side of the brain – correlating with better knowledge of basic math – also tended to have higher PSAT scores than their peers who engaged the left side of the brain less when doing the same math problems. Particularly, students who were activating the supramarginal gyrus, which is the part of the brain linked to fact retrieval, also performed better on their PSATs.

Ansari posits that lacking a solid math background — resulting in a weak PSAT showing — were attempting to derive basic mathematical facts that their better-performing peers already knew. That means that they spent more time in each question, and even simple problems posed more of a challenge, especially when working under a deadline imposed by a timed exam.

 “If you are a high school student and you are using brain circuits that we know are associated with fact retrieval and fluency, we see evidence that you are also going to score better on the math portion of the college admission test. There is a clear link between fluency and high level abilities — being fluent at basic math counts.”

These findings could serve as a new weapon in the arsenal of education reformers who are looking to bring back a traditional style of mathematical instruction that puts a focus on mastery of basic skills. It appears that when it comes to elementary math, this kind of an approach is more predictive of future math success – as measured by PSAT scores – than one focused on problem solving.