In educational circles, rote memorization often gets a bad rap. But there’s new research that suggests that — when it comes to mastering math — memorization of basic facts and calculations is quite helpful.
In a study conducted by Stanford University and published by Nature Neuroscience, neuroscientists started by watching what the brains of 28 youngsters did when they worked on basic arithmetic problems inside a brain-scan MRI machine.
The children, ages 7 to 9, were given simple calculations to do (for instance, “what is four plus five?”) and instructed to hit the correct answer button. The researchers recorded not only how rapidly the subjects responded, but what areas of their brains were activated through the process.
A second observation involved watching the childrens’ faces and hands to see if they moved their lips or counted on their fingers to solve the math problems.
The bottom line? Because the children were tested more than once (about a year apart), researchers discovered that as the kids got older they relied more on memory and were quicker and more accurate with their answers. In other words, there was less brain activity in the prefrontal and parietal regions associated with counting and much more in the brain’s memory bank, the hippocampus.
The hippocampus — a kind of temporary staging area where new information enters short term memory — sends information elsewhere for long term storage and later retrieval. Hippocampal connections increased with the kids’ math performance.
“The stronger the connections, the greater each individual’s ability to retrieve facts from memory,” said Dr. Vinod Menon, a psychiatry professor at Stanford who was the study’s senior author.
Comparison testing with adults illustrated that basic math facts and calculations end up in long term storage.
That efficiency — the storage and speedy retrieval of math facts — means there’s more processing memory available to tackle more complex calculations.
“The study provides new evidence that this experience with math actually changes the hippocampal patterns, or the connections. They become more stable with skill development,” explained Kathy Mann Koepke with the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study. “So learning your addition and multiplication tables and having them in rote memory helps.”
Mann Koepke’s take is that if the child’s brain does not have to labor over simple math, there is more short-term memory space to learn new concepts, so they catch on more quickly. They have a competitive advantage because of the cognitive structure in place, and are more likely to outperform their peers.
The news flash is that those tried-and-true flash cards might actually help. It appears that children who have the basics stored in longer term memory can skip the preliminary calculations, move on to more complex mathematics problems, and learn faster and better.