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Can you really have a mind for math?

Sherri Kuhn writes about raising teenagers, the perils of a clean home, wistfulness over babies, and anything else that makes her laugh (or cry) in the years between changing diapers and wearing them. With a son just starting college and...

Wired for math success

We have all seen people who seem to just understand math as if it were a second language. For many children who struggle with math, it is anything but easy.
Smart girl with math on chalkboard

Researchers studied the brain and how it affects math learning — and how that knowledge might help all kids succeed.

It’s the four-letter word that divides a room faster than you can say “quadratic equation” — math. Love it or hate it, you can’t get away from the fact that math is the foundation for everything from baking to building. And while it affects nearly every facet of our lives, for some people learning math is a difficult task. Can you truly be wired for math success? A new study sheds light on the secrets of math learning.

What you should know about accelerated math programs >>

What they studied

For years researchers have studied regions of the adult brain that relate to learning math. But the same data was not available for younger people. Kaustubh Supekar is a brain scientist at Stanford University who decided to study children to see if there are particular parts of a child’s brain that correlate more to math learning. In a study involving 24 third-grade students, he and his coworkers measured brain structures and how they are connected in order to predict a student’s math ability. They found that these structures were not only a good predictor of math ability, but they might even be a more accurate indicator than IQ or aptitude tests.

How did they measure math ability?

The team of researchers started by measuring the IQ of each third grader and assessing their individual math and reading abilities. They then took an MRI scan of their brains to measure the sizes of different regions in the students’ brains, and to see connections between different parts of the brain as well.

For the long-term part of the study, each student received between 15 and 20 hours of math tutoring over an eight-week period. After this phase of tutoring had ended, researchers re-tested the math ability of each student. All 24 children benefited from the tutoring, but the children who showed the greatest improvement in math had bigger hippocampi than the others. In addition, in the most-improved children the hippocampi were also well connected to the areas in the brain responsible for making memories and retrieving facts. These findings were considered surprising, since the hippocampus doesn’t play a big role in how an adult uses numbers. For young students, it seems to play an important role. Supekar hopes this study may help educators fine-tune math tutoring to fit how an individual student learns. “Right now, math education is like a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says.

Craig S. McCarron, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the mathematics department at the University of the Incarnate Word. He is currently writing a book about removing obstacles to learning from math curriculum. “I am not surprised by the hippocampus results you mention, although I’m not familiar with that particular study,” he says. “We are beginning to connect the dots between learning and the physiological changes in the brain. We are still far from completely understanding these connections,” he adds.

How does this help my kid?

Do you have a child who struggles with math each school year? Here are some tips for helping your child succeed in math.

  • Get in the zone: “Research in cognitive science has shown that each student has an ‘optimal learning zone,’” says Dr. McCarron. “If the tasks are too complex, the student is overwhelmed, confused and doesn’t learn. If the tasks are too easy, the student actually goes backwards.” Between these extremes, a student learns and progresses. “One teacher cannot tailor the learning activities to each student. This is why it is so important for parents to get involved,” he adds. Tailor your math work at home to fit where your child is at, not just what is on the homework.
  • Master the skills: “Focus on mastery of rote mathematical skills at home,” Dr. McCarron suggests. “Flash cards, timed arithmetic drills (easily found on the internet), multiplication tables and the like are the building blocks of mathematical understanding.” Take away the calculators and change up the drills to make them progressively more challenging.
  • Repeat, repeat: Tosin Williams is the founder of The Learning Period, an in-home tutoring service, and has been a classroom educator for the past eight years. “Repetition is key. The difference between students who 'get it' is that fewer rounds of repetition are necessary to solidify a concept — it just seems as if these particular students are better at math,” shares Williams.
  • Make it relevant: Try and relate the math problems to current events, pop culture or anything else that will draw a mental picture for your child. Classic word problems in math textbooks often don’t have any relevance to daily life.
  • Take on a tutor: Sometimes the best thing you can do is to hire an experienced tutor to help your child master the math. Arabella Flynn [pen name] has been tutoring for years, and math is a passion for her. “Often, I find that the problem people have with math is that our ideas of teaching math are very narrow and linear,” she says. “Mostly, I explain things by analogy, using something they do grasp to illuminate something they don't.”
  • Be positive: “Always be positive about it,” adds Williams. “Students already know when they're not good at something, and their parents’, instructors’ and teachers’ attitude can have an impact on their willingness to keep trying in a given area.”

More on learning

6 Ways to help motivate your child to learn
6 Steps to raising a smarter child
Introducing a second language to your child

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