Grantee: University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Researcher: Dénes Szücs, Ph.D.
Grant Title: Cognitive and emotional background of mathematical development: The role of working memory and executive attention in context
Grant Type: Scholar Award
Program Area: Understanding Human Cognition
Duration: 6 years
Human mathematics is the fascinating product of thousands of years of cultural evolution and it is more important than ever in today's technologically advanced societies. Still, a considerable proportion of adults have very poor mathematical competence, several children have mathematical learning disabilities and others show high anxiety levels about situations involving mathematics. This research programme aims to understand both cognitive and emotional aspects of mathematical development in primary school where important building blocks of human specific mathematical knowledge are put in place. Taking an Educational Neuroscience approach we study how the full range of educational achievements relate to cognitive and emotional factors in children with mathematical learning problems, typically achieving children and gifted children. Improved knowledge will enable us to prevent and/or remediate cognitive and emotional mathematical learning problems. This will ultimately improve the level of mathematical competence in the whole of the population.
About 6% of children have developmental dyscalculia which is a specific learning difficulty of mathematics. Children with developmental dyscalculia have normal intelligence and their reading skills may be perfect. We aim to determine whether developmental dyscalculia and relatively weak or particularly strong mathematical ability can be related to individual variability in exactly specified components of memory function and executive attention. We also study how these cognitive factors relate to logical reasoning ability. Developmental dyscalculia can only be understood in the context of normal development because both children and the mathematical curriculum are constantly changing during schooling. Hence, we pay special attention to mapping how normal mathematical competence develops during each year of primary school and how the particularly weak and strong performers differ from typical achievers. The study of gifted children may enable us to understand how typical and weak performers can achieve similarly strong performance.
Besides cognitive difficulties a substantial number of children and adults have mathematics anxiety, a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics. Mathematics anxiety is clearly distinguishable from general anxiety and it ranges from a feeling of mild tension to experiencing a strong fear of mathematics. Mathematics anxiety may generalize to various situations with the consequence that otherwise perfectly intelligent and capable persons develop a severe avoidance of situations involving any kinds of mathematics and do not choose careers involving the application of mathematics. One line of our research examines what triggers mathematics anxiety in children. Further, we investigate developmental dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety in a joint framework because emotional and cognitive processes are likely intertwined. For example, mathematics anxiety is known to reduce the amount of memory resources available for mathematical function which negatively impacts mathematical achievement. In addition, we aim to understand whether having developmental dyscalculia facilitates the appearance of mathematics anxiety and vice versa.