New research provides strong evidence that spatial ability — or the capacity to understand and remember dimensional relations among objects — impacts mathematical learning in children. The findings, published in Nature Human Behaviour, indicate that improving visuospatial working memory and non-verbal reasoning are the most effective avenues for enhancing math performance.
Some prior research has indicated that improvements in spatial reasoning ability can translate into improved mathematical skill. But the authors of the new study said there was a lack of large, randomized studies assessing the relationship between spatial ability and mathematical performance.
“Mathematical learning in young children is an extremely important process. Math ability at a young age is not only predictive of future learning, but of future academic success in general. Many children struggle with mathematics, which makes this a very important field to investigate,” said study author Torkel Klingberg, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute.
Spatial reasoning involves the ability to create a mental representation of space, maintain it in memory, and manipulate it. Klingberg and his colleagues were particularly interested in whether the ability to maintain spatial representations or the ability to manipulate spatial representations was more important for mathematical performance.
In their study, the researchers analyzed data from 17,648 Swedish schoolchildren who completed cognitive training via an app for either 20 or 33 minutes per day over the course of seven weeks. (Educators at each school decided the length of training per day.) The children, who were between the ages of six and eight, were first given identical training exercises for the first five days.
The app then automatically randomized each child into one of five different training plans. In each plan, the children spent about half of their time on number line tasks. The remaining time was allotted to different proportions of spatial cognitive training tasks in the form of rotation tasks (2D mental rotation and tangram puzzle), visual working memory tasks, or non-verbal reasoning tasks.
In the number line task, the children identified the right position of a number on a line bound by a start and an end point. In the rotation tasks, the children were asked to rotate a 2D object to fit various angles. In the visual working memory task, the children reproduced a sequence of dots on a grid. In the non-verbal reasoning task, the children were asked to choose the correct image to fill a blank space based on previous sequences. The training was adaptive, meaning that the app gradually increased the difficulty of the tasks.
Mathematical testing was self-administered through the app, and the children’s performance was tested in the first, fifth and seventh week.
The researchers found that the mathematical performance of all five groups improved over time. But children who focused on visual working memory tasks tended to see greater improvement than those who focused more on rotation tasks. “This suggests that, when it comes to transfer to mathematics, the crucial aspect of spatial training is maintaining a spatial representation, rather than manipulating it,” the researchers said. Children who focused on non-verbal reasoning tasks also tended to see greater improvement than those who focused more on rotation tasks.
“Here, we only randomized a minor part of training activities, as 70% of the time was identical for all children. Yet, slight changes in the cognitive content 30% of the time resulted in a 11.5% difference in mathematical learning, with some tasks being two to three times more effective than others,” the researchers noted.
“For many years, there has been a somewhat confused discussion about ‘does brain training work.’ This discussion has been confused because you need to define who is training, what they are training on, and what is the measured outcome,” Klingberg told PsyPost. “This research brings some very important evidence to this debate, since it shows, with high statistical significance, that typically developing children who train on visuo-spatial working memory tasks improve their mathematical learning.”
The randomization procedure ensured that schools had equal percentages of students in each training plan regardless of demographic factors. But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“For ethical and practical reasons, there was no passive control group,” Klingberg said. “We could therefore only quantify how much children improved from working memory training relative to another type of cognitive training. Outcome was measured with three mathematical tasks that were not part of the training. This is good, but as always, one could have had more measurements, as well as long-term follow-up.”
The study, “Training spatial cognition enhances mathematical learning in a randomized study of 17,000 children“, was authored by Nicholas Judd and Torkel Klingberg.