Hasty answers may make boys better at math

U. MISSOURI (US) — The slow and steady approach to math that girls use gives them an edge early on, but by the end of sixth grade, boys, who use a faster and more error-prone method, take the lead.

A new study finds that boys show more preference for solving arithmetic problems by reciting an answer from memory and girls are more likely to compute the answer by counting. Researchers believe that understanding these results may help teachers and parents guide students better.

“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,” says Drew Bailey, a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in psychological science from the University of Missouri who will start as a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall.


“In our study, we found that boys were more likely to call out answers than girls, even though they were less accurate early in school. Over time, though, this practice at remembering answers may have allowed boys to surpass girls in accuracy.”

Published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the study followed approximately 300 children as they progressed from first to sixth grade. In the first and second grades, the boys’ tendency to give an answer quickly led to more answers in total, but also more wrong answers. Girls, on the other hand, were right more often, but responded more slowly and to fewer questions. By sixth grade, the boys were answering more problems and getting more correct.

“Developing mathematical skill may be part ‘practice makes perfect’ and part ‘perfect makes practice,'” Bailey says. “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.”

“Parents can give their children an advantage by making them comfortable with numbers and basic math before they start grade school, so that the children will have fewer trepidations about calling out answers,” says co-author David Geary, professor of psychological science.

“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 the answers aren’t correct at first. In time, the brain develops improved memories and more correct answers result.”

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