May 01, 2013
Brain Scans Predict Math Tutoring Success In Children

3rd graders with a larger hippocampus in their brains learned math much faster when tutored.

Why do some children learn math more easily than others? Research from the Stanford University School of Medicine has yielded an unexpected new answer.

In a study of third-graders' responses to math tutoring, Stanford scientists found that the size and wiring of specific brain structures predicted how much an individual child would benefit from math tutoring. However, traditional intelligence measures, such as children's IQs and their scores on tests of mathematical ability, did not predict improvements from tutoring.

The research is the first to use brain scans to look for a link between math-learning abilities and brain structure or function, and also the first to compare neural and cognitive predictors of kids' responses to tutoring. In addition, it provides information on the differences between how children and adults learn math, and could help researchers understand the origins of math-learning disabilities.

I am expecting smarter and more ambitious parents to jump on the opportunity to use genetic testing for embryo selection to produce babies better able to learn math. The larger hippocampal regions of fast learners must be caused by genetic variants for faster memorization.

Adult math learning performance is tied to other parts of the brain. This could be explained by the different nature of what is being learned as an adult.

The brain systems highlighted by this study - including the hippocampus, basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex - are different from those previously implicated for math learning in adults, the researchers noted. When solving math problems, adults rely on brain regions that are specialized for representing complex visual objects and processing spatial information.

And the findings suggest that the tutoring approach used, which was tailored to each child's level of understanding and included lots of repetitive, high-speed arithmetic practice to help cement facts in children's heads, works because it is compatible with the way their brains encode facts. "Memory resources provided by the hippocampal system create a scaffold for learning math in the developing brain," Menon said. "Our findings suggest that, while conceptual knowledge about numbers is necessary for math learning, repeated, speeded practice and testing of simple number combinations is also needed to encode facts and encourage children's reliance on retrieval - the most efficient strategy for answering simple arithmetic problems." Once kids are able to pull up answers to basic arithmetic problems automatically from memory, their brains can tackle more complex problems.

What I wonder: do slow learning 3rd grade kids have a greater capacity to learn basic math than poorly performing adults do to learn advanced math? The spatial reasoning that adults use can't be replaced with memorization. Whereas I would expect at least some slow learning kids can eventually memorize, say, multiplication tables given enough repetition.

Update: Math anxiety can be seen in brain scans as heightened activity in the amygdala.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 May 01 10:01 PM 

SOBL1 said at May 2, 2013 6:48 AM:

Randall - More oil/nat gas in northern plains of USA. Flow rate, cost and other factors are at issue, but I've seen EROEI reports showing much higher numbers compared to other resources. Hooking up a pipeline becomes smarter as the reserves increase. Due to Iranian, Venezuelan, Arabian and Russian needs for high prices, this will help development and investment in the US.

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