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The importance of learning maths facts

Pupils with higher and lower maths scores use different parts of the brain when doing simple calculations, according to a new study in The Journal of Neuroscience. High achievers use an area of the brain associated with arithmetic fact retrieval, whereas pupils with lower scores use an area associated with quantity-processing mechanisms. The suggestion is that the ability to recall maths facts (rather than do the sum from scratch) helps the pupils to go on to more complex mathematics.

The researchers used an fMRI scanner to examine the brains of 33 pupils (aged 17-18) as they performed simple, single-digit arithmetic. There was a clear association between particular areas of the brain and the pupils’ scores in the PSAT maths test (taken at age 15-16). The results suggest a correlation between arithmetic fact retrieval and higher scores, but more research is needed to see whether there is also a causational link – for example, whether interventions where lower-scoring pupils learn maths facts lead to changes in brain activity and/or higher maths scores.

Source: Why Mental Arithmetic Counts: Brain Activation during Single Digit Arithmetic Predicts High School Math Scores (2013), The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(1).

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