Kids don't need math skills to glance at two groups of black dots and say which group has more dots, but practicing that intuitive task might boost their math scores, according to new research.
Just as athletes stretch and jog before a competition, practicing with quantities "could be seen as a warm-up for your brain to do math," said Melissa Libertus, a cognition researcher at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who wasn't involved in the new study.
For years, psychologists have known that human infants are born with an "approximate number sense," called ANS, or the ability to estimate amounts without counting. But researchers have puzzled over how this intuitive sense of number relates to and affects arithmetic skills.
Results from the study published in the journal Cognition show "the engagement of ANS leads to better math performance," said lead author Daniel Hyde of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Nearly 100 first-graders from the Boston area, about half girls and half boys, participated in a series of experiments for the study.
First, the researchers tested if the ability to estimate quantities could be directly tied to math skills. The kids were divided equally into four groups, and each group was assigned to make estimates and comparisons of different non-numerical things.
One set of kids had to estimate the quantity of dots in two groups of dots and say which had more. Another set of children had to "add" groups of dots together to say if a final group was larger than the previous groups. Other kids compared the lengths of lines or levels of brightness.
Afterwards, boys and girls who worked with the black dots completed easy addition problems roughly 25 percent faster than counterparts who interacted with the lines or brightness exercises.
On harder math problems, the black dot groups scored an average of 15 points higher - about a letter grade and a half - than boys and girls who didn't work with quantities of things.
"One of the most striking things was that they were able to find an effect just after a few short training exercises," Ariel Starr told Reuters Health. Starr, a doctoral student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has done similar research but was not involved in the current work.
In a second exercise, which included only 48 of the original kids, Hyde and his team wanted to rule out the possibility that the training exercises had an overall positive effect on any sort of test, not just math. So they added a language test to the quizzes given to the kids afterwards.
In this second experiment, they also increased the difficulty of the math problems. The researchers couldn't find any significant differences between the groups on the verbal test. But once again, children who worked with dots did better than those who compared brightness levels when presented with a mathematical challenge.
Hyde and his team say that the findings show direct causal evidence that exercising the ANS, as the current study did, leads to better math performance.
Starr said the findings are suggestive of a relationship, but more research is necessary to know exactly what caused the improvement in arithmetic.
"The key takeaway here is that getting children to think about quantities or numbers can put them in a state of mind that might enable them to do better on math problems," Starr said.
Without knowing more about the children in the experimental groups, she added, "it's difficult to know how broadly to apply the findings."
Both Starr and Libertus agreed that games are available on the market now for parents to try with their children. French researchers have been working since 2006 on a free downloadable computer game called "The Number Race," which deals with choosing different quantities. Both that game and one called "Rescue Calcularis," are tailored for children with learning disabilities, but, "it's very possible they could be beneficial for all kids," Libertus said.
Board games like Chutes and Ladders, which require children to count spaces along the board, help them to organize their mental number line, Starr said.
"The effect they show here is based only on an improvement in timed arithmetic done immediately after the training," Libertus said. She said that future studies could see if this effect could be seen in other types of math problems, for example, word problems, or learning new math concepts.
Another area that needs to be investigated is the best age to do this type of training, she said.
"Just like with sports, you can wonder if repeated training could have long-lasting effect on mathematical ability," Libertus said.