Simple Game Makes Kids Better at Math

Researchers boosted kindergarteners’ performance on formal arithmetic problems with a quick, fun game that exercised kids’ intuitive ability to estimate numbers.

The effects of the game, though not yet proven to be lasting, at least challenge the perception that mathematics ability is static and that someone who’s bad at math now is likely to remain bad at it.

“We used a five-minute game to change kids’ math performance,” says Jinjing “Jenny” Wang, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s not only changeable, it can be changeable in a very short period of time,” adds Wang, whose findings are published online by the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Humans and animals are born with an intuitive ability to compare quantities and demonstrate this knowledge as infants. For instance, when presented with a choice between a plate with a few crackers and another with more, even a baby—without counting or even knowing how—gravitates to the option with more.

This intuition about numbers is called the brain’s “approximate number system.”

Although this primitive sense of number is imprecise and quite different than numerically exact mathematics, studies have shown the two abilities are linked.

For instance, researchers from the same Johns Hopkins research group as Wang have demonstrated that a strong early gut sense of approximate number can predict math ability that emerges later when a child attends school.

Until now, however, no one has shown that grooming that gut sense could make a child better at math.

“That’s the big question,” Wang says. “If we can improve people’s intuitive number ability, can we also improve their math ability?”

How the game works

The researchers created a five-minute computer game to train the intuitive number sense of 5-year-olds. Blue dots and yellow dots flashed on a laptop screen; 40 children were asked to say whether there were more blue ones or yellow ones—and to do so quickly, without counting.

After correct responses, a pre-recorded voice told them, “That’s right.” After wrong answers, they heard, “Oh, that’s not right.”

Some of the kids started with easier problems that gradually became harder. Other kids started with the hard ones, and a third group worked through a mix of hard and easy problems.

After the dots game, researchers gave each child a vocabulary quiz or a math quiz. On the math quiz, derived from a standardized math ability assessment, the kids were asked to count backward, to judge the magnitude of spoken numbers (“Which is more, 7 or 6?”), to calculate answers to word problems (“Joey has one block and gets two more; how many does he have?”), and to write down numbers.

The results

Though researchers detected no change in any of the children’s vocabulary skills, the kids who performed the dots game in the proper training fashion—easiest to hardest—scored much higher on the math test, getting about 80 percent of the answers correct.

The kids given the hardest dot problems first got just 60 percent of the math test right, while the control group kids who got the mix of easy and hard questions scored about 70 percent.

It was clear that improving the children’s number sense with the game helped their math scores, at least in the short term, says Lisa Feigenson, professor of psychological and brain sciences and a senior author of the study. The next step will be to figure out if there’s a way to use the technique for lasting results.

“These findings emphasize the sense in which core cognition, seen across species and across development, serves as a foundation for more sophisticated thought,” Feigenson says. “Of course, this raises the question of whether this kind of rapid improvement lasts for any significant duration, and whether it enhances all types of math abilities. We’re excited to follow up on these questions.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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