Study: Math Success Aided by Knowing Facts, Freeing Working Memory

Dr. Kathy Mann, working for the National Institutes of Health, has discovered that children’s brains reorganize as they are learning math.  That means experience does matter and drilling children at home on simple addition and multiplication really could pay off in the long run, says Lauren Neergaard writing for the Associated Press.

Children start making the switch from counting in their heads  or using fingers to “fact retrieval” at about 8 0r 9 years-old.  How well they make the transition from this to memory-based problem-solving will ultimately predict their math mastery.  If a child does not make the transition well, they can have difficulties or a slow pace in their math learning down the line.

The question then becomes, what makes the transition difficult for some children?

That is what Stanford researchers wanted to know, and they began the quest by using a brain-scanning MRI on 28 children while they solved simple addition problems.  When the children saw a math calculation such as 6+1=7, they were instructed to push a button to signal whether the answer was correct or incorrect.

What the researchers were looking for was how quickly they responded and which regions of the brain lit up when they responded.  The scientists met with the students again and observed the children to see if they moved their lips or counted on their fingers and compared the brain data. The students were tested again about one year later.  As the subjects got older, their answers were based more on memory, the answers were faster and more accurate, and the changes showed in the brain.

The part of the brain that relays information when new data come in – short-term working memory – and then sends it to the longer-term memory area where it is stored for retrieval is the hippocampus.

“The stronger the connections, the greater each individual’s ability to retrieve facts from memory,” said Dr. Vinod Menon, a psychiatry professor at Stanford and the study’s senior author.

When Menon put 20 adult and 20 adolescents in the MRI he found that the hippocampus hardly came into play, and answers were practically automatic from long-term storage.  The brain becomes much more efficient over time.  When your brain can solve simple math quickly and easily, it has more working memory free to process more difficult math.

“The study provides new evidence that this experience with math actually changes the hippocampal patterns, or the connections. They become more stable with skill development,” she said. “So learning your addition and multiplication tables and having them in rote memory helps.”

These findings probably carry over to other subject areas.  One example is that children who learn to match the sounds of letters with the letters themselves learn to read more quickly.  Researchers hope to be able to study why this system does not work for students with math learning disabilities.

The study, from the Stanford University of Medicine, was published this month online at Nature and Neuroscience.  Erin Digitale of the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs said some of the findings were a bit of a surprise to  the researches.

“It was surprising to us that the hippocampal and prefrontal contributions to memory-based problem-solving during childhood don’t look anything like what we would have expected for the adult brain,” said postdoctoral scholar Shaozheng Qin, PhD, who is the paper’s lead author.

ZeeNews of India quotes Dr. Menon:

“This work provides insight into the dynamic changes that occur over the course of cognitive development in each child,” said Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences and the senior author of the study.

“The hippocampus provides a scaffold for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memory in children,” Menon added.