Will Tutoring Boost Math Scores? Brain Scans Can Tell

girl with math on chalkboard
Despite decades of research, scientists still debate the best ways to predict people's math abilities (Image credit: ollyy | Shutterstock.com)

Brain scans can predict which children's math skills will improve the most with tutoring, a new study suggests.

The research, published today (April 29) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that third-graders who improved most quickly after math tutoring had a larger-sized hippocampus, a region involved in memory and spatial learning, than other kids.

Though the results are still preliminary, in the distant future, brain scans could be used to optimize teaching methods for a child's stage of development, said study co-author Kaustubh Supekar, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University.

"Right now, it's one-size-fits-all, where every person goes to the same educational tutoring program," Supekar told LiveScience. "We hope that this finding may lead to a targeted training or intervention for children." [Best Educational Games for K-3 Kids]

Math mystery

Metrics such as IQ or standardized test scores aren't very good at predicting how well children will learn new math skills, Supekar said. For instance, past work has shown that well-established strategies and internal motivation predict math improvement better than initial mathematical ability.

Supekar and his colleagues wanted to see whether some other factors could account for math improvement.

Toward that end, the research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan 24 third-grade children before and after an intensive, eight-week tutoring program to sharpen their simple addition skills. The team also subjected the children to a battery of assessments, including IQ tests and measures of math and behavioral traits.

Third-graders are just beginning to transition from strategies such as finger-counting to more sophisticated techniques such as decomposition — breaking 10 + 1 into 5 + 5 + 1, for example — or retrieving memorized sums, Supekar said.  The tutoring focused on those more sophisticated techniques.

Unique learning

All of the children benefited from the tutoring. But those who started out with more volume in their hippocampus and greater connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions showed greater gains in speed and accuracy. Initial math skills and IQ didn't predict improvements.

The study suggests that some children, possibly because of their stage of brain development, may be more or less receptive to learning at specific times, Brian Butterworth, of University College London, who was not involved in the current study, told LiveScience. As a consequence, children need education that's tailored to their learning abilities as they grow, Butterworth said.

Still, don't expect brain scanners in every elementary school anytime soon.

"But there may be ways in which what this team has discovered can be translated into some way of identifying the kids who are going to benefit, versus those who are not going to benefit," Butterworth said.

Follow Tia Ghose on Twitter @tiaghose. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.