New & Now

Wrong Makes Right: Risk-taking trumps accuracy in developing math skills.

IMBALANCE BETWEEN boys’ and girls’ arithmetic skills has more to do with problem-solving approaches than with any mathematics-related “gender gap,” according to a study published earlier this year by two MU psychologists. It’s an insight that bolsters a growing body of research suggesting that both sexes are capable of achieving strong skills in math.

The study, conducted by recent MU doctoral graduate Drew Bailey and David Geary, Curators’ Professor and a Thomas Jefferson Fellow in psychological sciences, followed some 300 children as they progressed from first to sixth grade. In the first and second grades, boys answered simple arithmetic problems more quickly and more often. Girls, who tended to rely on “procedure” rather than memory to solve problems, responded more slowly. But more of their answers were correct.

By sixth grade, this had changed. Boys were still using memory to answer more, but now they led the girls in getting them right. What happened?

“The observed difference in arithmetic accuracy between the sexes may arise from a willingness to risk being wrong by answering from memory before one is sure of the correct answer,” Bailey says. “Developing mathematical skill may be part 'practice makes perfect’ and part 'perfect makes practice.’ Attempting more answers from memory gives risk-takers more practice, which may eventually lead to improvements in accuracy. It also is possible that children who are skilled at certain strategies are more likely to use them and therefore acquire more practice.”

The take-away is that parents would do well to help their kids, girls especially, become more comfortable with numbers and basic math before they start grade school, adds Geary. This would make them more comfortable calling out answers.

“As an adult, it seems easy to remember basic math facts, but in children’s brains the networks are still forming. It could be that trying to answer a problem from memory engages those networks and improves them, even if some of the answers aren’t correct at first. In time, the brain develops improved memories and more correct answers result.”

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Bailey is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Students raising hand in class. Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

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