Little Numbers Add Up to Big Differences in High School Math Tests

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 14, 2013 2 min read

High school students who struggle on college-readiness tests solve the simplest arithmetic problems as quickly as higher-achieving students, but they use very different brain processes to do so, according to new research.

In “Why Mental Arithmetic Counts: Brain Activation during
Single-Digit Arithmetic Predicts High School Math Scores, math disability and anxiety researchers Daniel Ansari and Gavin Price of the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, and Michèle M. M. Mazzocco, the director of the Math Skills Development Project at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, analyzed the links between students’ math achievement and the way their brains processed the most basic problems. Their study was published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The researchers asked 43 high school seniors to perform single-digit arithmetic while their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can measure the activity in different areas in real time. The students previously had been identified as showing consistently high, average, or low math achievement from kindergarten through 9th grade. The students’ results were then compared to their achievement on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college-readiness assessment typically given in 10th grade.

Students who performed well on the math section of the PSAT had higher activity in the left supramarginal gyrus and bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, both areas that have been linked to memory of math facts. By contrast, those who had worse math PSAT scores had lower brain activity in those areas, and more activity in areas associated with processing number quantities, such as the right intraparietal sulcus. The findings suggested that high-achieving students knew these answers by rote memory, while lower-performing students were still mentally calculating even low-level problems.

“The degree to which they engage these slightly different brain processes relates to how they do,” Ansari said.

Both groups solved the problems equally quickly, but Ansari noted that the difference in how students process the problems could add time and effort as students attempt more and more complex equations.

“Perhaps the building of those networks early in development go on to facilitate high-level learning, which in turn allows you to free up working memory. It speaks to this raging debate in math education on procedural versus concept learning,” Ansari said. “People err too strongly on one side of the debate. I have a feeling there is a message here for elementary education in not to go to either of the two extremes but to look at the interactions between the two.”

The researchers plan next to track students taught in different ways in the early grades to determine whether differences in teaching styles might contribute to differences in mental computation styles years later.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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