Why Johnny Can't Add, Even After Tutoring

Brain structure may predict math improvement more than intelligence, study finds

MONDAY, April 29 (HealthDay News) -- Whether your child will benefit from math tutoring may depend more on brain structure than intelligence, a small study suggests.

The size and wiring of certain brain structures predicted how much a child would benefit from individual instruction in arithmetic, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers found. They said traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ and scores on math ability tests, did not predict improvement.

The findings could further the understanding of math-learning disabilities and lead to new targeted learning programs for children, the study authors suggested.

The study, published online April 29 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included 24 third-grade students who had brain scans and underwent standard neuropsychological assessments -- including tests of IQ, working memory and reading -- before beginning eight weeks of math tutoring.

"What was really surprising was that intrinsic brain measures can predict change -- we can actually predict how much a child is going to learn during eight weeks of math tutoring based on measures of brain structure and connectivity," study senior author Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said in a Stanford news release.

All the children, who were 8 to 9 years old, showed improvement after tutoring. Overall, there was a 67 percent average improvement in the children's performance efficiency, a measure of accuracy and speed of problem solving. But individual gains varied widely, ranging from 8 percent to 198 percent, the investigators found.

When they compared the brain scans and the improvements after tutoring, the researchers found that larger sizes of three brain structures predicted which children would get the greatest benefit from tutoring. Of these structures, the one most strongly associated with improvement after tutoring was a larger hippocampus, which is one of the brain's most important memory centers.

The researchers also found that connections between the hippocampus and several other brain regions also predicted a child's ability to benefit from tutoring. These include the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, which are important for forming long-term memories.

"The results are a significant step toward the development of targeted learning programs based on a child's current as well as predicted learning trajectory," study lead author Kaustubh Supekar, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said in the news release.

Next, the researchers plan to compare brain structure and wiring in children with and without math learning disabilities, and they hope to determine if children's brains can be exercised to help lower-performing students learn math.

More information

The Federal Resources for Educational Excellence offers material on learning mathematics.

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