Mathematics is important. As teachers, we want to know the most effective methods are for maximising the maths performance of students. Ideally, we might create a virtuous cycle where increased maths achievement boosts students’ self concept, leading to greater motivation for the subject and further improvements in performance.
A new study sheds some light on how we might approach this. David Geary and colleagues analysed a rare longitudinal data set. 167 students were followed from Kindergarten through to Grade 8, undergoing a battery of assessments each year. Some of these were generic such as IQ and working memory tests, as well as reading assessments. Others were specific to mathematics and included tests of arithmetic and fraction knowledge.
The researchers found a correlation between all of these tests and maths performance. However, they found that the maths specific skills seemed to become more important as students aged. Fraction knowledge became particularly important in later grades.
This makes a lot of sense. Mathematics is not a general skill. You don’t improve at it by practising problem solving, you improve at it amassing knowledge specific to the subject.
There are some limitations to the study. The researchers had to decide what tests to run and so they picked factors they thought might be relevant. There could be other factors associated with mathematics performance – for instance, non-cognitive traits such as resilience – that the researchers did not test for.
However, I think that this demonstrates the importance of early maths teaching. If students do not learn basic maths skills and number facts at primary school then this will degrade their later ability in mathematics. The idea that we can then motivate these students into persisting with maths seems implausible.