Friday, February 10, 2017

Skills underlying mathematics: The role of executive function in the development of mathematics proficiency

Reading difficulties (poor literacy) are commonly associated with social and academic challenges. Only recently has the importance of math skills for economic well-being been recognized. Recent research suggests that numerical skills and more general cognitive processes like executive functions influence a child’s success in mathematics.  Executive functions (EF) refer to the cognitive processes that enable us to control and coordinate purposeful, goal-oriented thought and action. Three classes of EF have been identified: the ability to suppress distracting information (inhibition), the ability to think flexibly (shifting), and the ability to simultaneously hold and manipulate information (working memory). This paper reviewed the evidence linking executive functions and mathematic ability.
Correlational studies have consistently shown a relationship between working memory in mathematical performance across a range of age groups. What is particularly important is that this variance cannot be explained by other variables such as language skills, reading skills, or intelligence. Other studies have examined this relationship more directly, and shown that math performance declines when participants are engaged in working memory tasks. A small number of studies have attempted to train Executive Function skills to determine whether this will lead to improvements in learning mathematics. While training programs have been effective in enhancing working memory, there is currently no consistent evidence that they in turn improve mathematical achievement.
            Understanding the role of EF skills in mathematical performance is essential for parents and teachers. A greater awareness of the relationship between EF skills and learning mathematics may allow educators to better facilitate children’s learning and performance of mathematics in an academic environment.

Blogger: Natalie Pitch is an undergraduate currently completing her honours thesis in psychology under the supervision of Lisa Archibald


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