Intuitive Number Games Improve Children's Math Skills

First Posted: Jan 29, 2014 02:19 PM EST

A study conducted at the University of Illinois leans toward the belief that getting children to think intuitively about numbers - through instinctive numerical exercises - bolsters their ability to solve math problems.

In the study, children were asked to approximate two groups of objects without counting them; they would simply eyeball the two sets and determine which set contained more. This process proved to enhance all-around arithmetic skills. The report of this study was published in the journal Cognition.

Aside from being asked to approximate groups of objects, children also participated in exercises that compared the brightness of two objects as well as the lengths of different lines. Those who practiced these problems performed better on their math tests compared to the students who analyzed the objects in a different manner.

"For easier problems, where all children are very accurate, those who practiced engaging what we call their 'intuitive sense of number' performed roughly 25 percent faster than children practicing a control task," said Professor Daniel Hyde of the University of Illinois in a EurekAlert! article. "For more difficult problems, children engaging their intuitive sense of number scored roughly 15 percentage points higher than those practicing a control task." 

These experiments helped Hyde and his colleagues rule out other factors, such as greater motivation or level of cognitive engagement, in order to level the playing field of the study.

Although studies in the past have proven that a superior ability at solving intuitive number tasks correlates to higher math grades, Hyde's goal was to provide a causal link in children and to demonstrate that practice of such tests actually improves mathematic ability.

"These results showed that brief practice with tasks requiring children to guess or intuit the number of objects actually improved their arithmetic test performance," he said.

This is very useful information for teachers since students in the United States were ranked behind 29 other nations in terms of mathematical performance, according to Education Week.

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