Practice, Not Talent Helps Students Become Better Mathematicians
December 13, 2013

Practice, Not Talent Helps Students Become Better Mathematicians

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

New research published in the journal Psychological Reports could change the way math is taught in the classroom.

The traditional outlook on math is that it is a skill you are simply born with, but a team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim says it is practice that makes perfect, rather than natural talent.

Researchers tested the math skills of 70 Norwegian fifth graders with an average age of about 10 years old. They found it is important to practice every single kind of math subject in order to be good at them all, and these are not skills that are just inherited.

"We found support for a task specificity hypothesis. You become good at exactly what you practice," Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson, of NTNU's Department of Psychology, said in a statement.

The team tested nine types of math tasks, ranging from normal addition and subtraction to oral multiplication and understanding the clock and calendar.

"Our study shows little correlation between (being good at) the nine different mathematical skills,” Sigmundsson said. "For instance there is little correlation between being able to solve a normal addition in the form of '23 + 67' and addition in the form of a word problem."

While basic math may not be a problem for one student, reading itself could be, making written math problems more difficult for the student. Sigmundsson said some students could be good at geometry but may struggle in algebra, which means these students should be practicing more algebra.

"At the same time this means there is hope for some students. Some just can't be good at all types of math, but at least they can be good at geometry, for example," he said in a statement.

Being good at what you practice is due to the fact different kinds of practice activate different neural connections in the brain.

"This is also supported by new insights in neurology. With practice you develop specific neural connections," says Sigmundsson.

Even though this study focused on math as a subject, the team said the results could be translated to other areas as well, even beyond education. A football player who practices hitting a field goal from 25 yards away will become good at exactly this, but not necessarily good at tackling or throwing.