PhD student, Johns Hopkins University
I use a computerized quantity comparison game to change children's math performance
Primitive cognitive abilities, such as the ability to compare numbers approximately, have a long evolutionary history. For example, when a monkey in the wild sees one bucket with 5 apple slices and one with 10 apple slices, they can tell which has more. However, the use of language is unique to human beings, which can create thoughts that go well beyond our primitive cognitive abilities, such as the thought of “exactly 7089”. Where do symbolic systems such as language and maths come from?
I began to address this question by examining the building blocks of symbolic maths. Specifically, how does the primitive ability to approximate numerical quantity contribute to symbolic maths learning and performance?
In my research, I use computer games as a tool to experimentally manipulate children's precision at discriminating quantities without counting, and then observe its subsequent effects on children's symbolic maths performance.
So far I have found that brief changes in approximate number precision resulted in changes in preschool children's symbolic maths performance, but not their verbal performance. My ongoing research and future research explore the duration of this manipulation effect and its mechanisms. Together, this line of work may give us more ideas about how to help children with difficulties in learning maths.
Abstract: Nonhuman animals, human infants, and human adults all share an Approximate Number System (ANS) that allows them to imprecisely represent number without counting. Among humans, people differ in the precision of their ANS representations, and these individual differences have been shown to correlate with symbolic mathematics performance in both children and adults. For example, children with specific math impairment (dyscalculia) have notably poor ANS precision. However, it remains unknown whether ANS precision contributes to individual differences only in populations of people with lower or average mathematical abilities, or whether this link also is present in people who excel in math. Here we tested non-symbolic numerical approximation in 13- to 16-year old gifted children enrolled in a program for talented adolescents (the Center for Talented Youth). We found that in this high achieving population, ANS precision significantly correlated with performance on the symbolic math portion of two common standardized tests (SAT and ACT) that typically are administered to much older students. This relationship was robust even when controlling for age, verbal performance, and reaction times in the approximate number task. These results suggest that the Approximate Number System is linked to symbolic math performance even at the top levels of math performance.
Pub.: 07 Apr '17, Pinned: 24 Aug '17
Abstract: From early in life, humans have access to an approximate number system (ANS) that supports an intuitive sense of numerical quantity. Previous work in both children and adults suggests that individual differences in the precision of ANS representations correlate with symbolic math performance. However, this work has been almost entirely correlational in nature. Here we tested for a causal link between ANS precision and symbolic math performance by asking whether a temporary modulation of ANS precision changes symbolic math performance. First, we replicated a recent finding that 5-year-old children make more precise ANS discriminations when starting with easier trials and gradually progressing to harder ones, compared with the reverse. Next, we show that this brief modulation of ANS precision influenced children's performance on a subsequent symbolic math task but not a vocabulary task. In a supplemental experiment, we present evidence that children who performed ANS discriminations in a random trial order showed intermediate performance on both the ANS task and the symbolic math task, compared with children who made ordered discriminations. Thus, our results point to a specific causal link from the ANS to symbolic math performance.
Pub.: 12 Apr '16, Pinned: 24 Aug '17
Abstract: The results of our recent experiments suggest that temporarily modulating children's approximate number system (ANS) precision leads to a domain-specific change in their symbolic math performance (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2016, Vol. 147, pp. 82-99). We interpreted these results as evidence for a causal relationship between ANS precision and symbolic math. In a commentary on our work, Merkley, Matejko, and Ansari argue that our methodology limits the interpretation of our results, primarily because our experiments did not meet the criteria for an intervention study as set out by What Works Clearinghouse and others. Here, we clarify the goals and limitations of our study and emphasize the variety of approaches to demonstrating causality. We argue that our goal was not to design and test an intervention or to compare the effectiveness of different treatments. Instead, we aimed to experimentally manipulate one variable (i.e., ANS acuity) and, in a randomized sample of children, observe whether this manipulation had any statistically significant effect on a dependent variable (i.e., performance on a set of symbolic math questions). We provide further analyses to support our assertion that a temporary manipulation of ANS performance does lead to a change in math performance. These results point to a causal relationship between ANS precision and math, and they suggest that further investigation of this relationship will be fruitful.
Pub.: 07 Nov '16, Pinned: 24 Aug '17
Abstract: Previous research has found a relationship between individual differences in children's precision when nonverbally approximating quantities and their school mathematics performance. School mathematics performance emerges from both informal (e.g., counting) and formal (e.g., knowledge of mathematics facts) abilities. It remains unknown whether approximation precision relates to both of these types of mathematics abilities. In the current study, we assessed the precision of numerical approximation in 85 3- to 7-year-old children four times over a span of 2years. In addition, at the final time point, we tested children's informal and formal mathematics abilities using the Test of Early Mathematics Ability (TEMA-3). We found that children's numerical approximation precision correlated with and predicted their informal, but not formal, mathematics abilities when controlling for age and IQ. These results add to our growing understanding of the relationship between an unlearned nonsymbolic system of quantity representation and the system of mathematics reasoning that children come to master through instruction.
Pub.: 01 Oct '13, Pinned: 25 Aug '17
Abstract: Children can represent number in at least two ways: by using their non-verbal, intuitive approximate number system (ANS) and by using words and symbols to count and represent numbers exactly. Furthermore, by the time they are 5years old, children can map between the ANS and number words, as evidenced by their ability to verbally estimate numbers of items without counting. How does the quality of the mapping between approximate and exact numbers relate to children's math abilities? The role of the ANS-number word mapping in math competence remains controversial for at least two reasons. First, previous work has not examined the relation between verbal estimation and distinct subtypes of math abilities. Second, previous work has not addressed how distinct components of verbal estimation-mapping accuracy and variability-might each relate to math performance. Here, we addressed these gaps by measuring individual differences in ANS precision, verbal number estimation, and formal and informal math abilities in 5- to 7-year-old children. We found that verbal estimation variability, but not estimation accuracy, predicted formal math abilities, even when controlling for age, expressive vocabulary, and ANS precision, and that it mediated the link between ANS precision and overall math ability. These findings suggest that variability in the ANS-number word mapping may be especially important for formal math abilities.
Pub.: 28 Jun '16, Pinned: 25 Aug '17
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