Researchers at the University of Illinois have made a discovery that may seriously shape how educators approach early math. In a study published in Cognitionpsychology professor Daniel Hyde tested a group of first graders’ basic intuitions about numbers.

The results of his study indicated kids who were routinely exposed to groups of items of different quantities and asked to use approximation to predict which group was bigger or smaller performed significantly better on a math test administered shortly afterwards than children who did not participate in an approximation exercise.

Hyde says the study’s purpose was to attempt to understand how basic intuitions about numbers relate to mathematics development in young learners.

For the study, he asked a group of first graders to look at sets of objects. Each set contained a different quantity of objects (e.g., a pile of 50 marbles versus a grouping of 30 pebbles). The kids were asked to compare the sets and guess which set was larger or smaller — just by looking at them, not by counting them.

Children in the study’s control group made predictions about non-numerical math activities, like comparing different colors for brightness and estimating lengths of different lines.

All of the children in the study were then given a comprehensive arithmetic (addition and subtraction) test. The group of children who were asked to make intuitive guesses about the quantities of objects prior to the text performed significantly better than the children in the control group.

Research Shows Kids Performed Better, Faster on Math Test


Hyde says if this had been a real math test administered in a school, the children who had made predictions about quantity would have scored a letter grade and a half higher than the kids who carried out non-numerical assessments prior to taking the test.

He also administered tests of varying degrees of difficulty to assess speed. He found the kids who were asked to predict if a group of items was bigger or smaller prior to taking the test were able to perform 25 percent faster than the kids in the control group.

The results of the University of Illinois research indicate a little bit of practice with a simple intuitive numerical exercise can drastically improve math performance.

When Professor Hyde administered a similar series of tests to assess verbal skills in kids, he found there was no improvement. This seems to indicate the boost this type of simple intuitive exercise gives to kids is unique to numbers, and it isn’t indicative of an overall, more effective instruction method.

University of Illinois Research Tip of the Iceberg


The University of Illinois research is the latest in a series of studies that challenge what scientists and curriculum developers think about math learning.

In 2013, researchers at Duke University discovered babies can distinguish which set contains more of a certain item, indicating numerical recognition is something humans are born with. The Duke study also showed mathematical abilities have been important to humans as a species for long periods of time during our development.

A second study published in late 2013, from the University of Michigan, indicated kids as young as three years old are capable of understanding both the meaning and the value of multi-digit numbers (even ones as high as three and four digits long). Educators had previously thought concepts such as place value and multi-digit numbers were too abstract for young children, but the Michigan study seemed to disprove that idea. The big-picture implication of this study is kids are ready for math earlier than anyone had previously thought.

Will this new method mean an overhaul in curricula or math instruction?


The University of Illinois study seems like a promising discovery in math education. Further research on the intuitive assessment of quantities and the corresponding boost in math performance might help curriculum designers zero in on some innovative and effective instructional methods.

The other two studies at Duke and Michigan have lots to tell us about math ability. If kids can learn these complex concepts at an early age, shouldn’t we include them front and center in early education?

RELATED: Why a Fixed Mindset in Math is Your Worst Enemy

Countries all over the world are looking to give their kids a leg up. This is the era of big international assessments of countries’ academic performances, like PISA. This is also the age of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) — widely considered to be the surest road to success. With math being the keystone of so many STEM fields, it’s only natural educators are on the lookout for curricular tweaks that will give their students an edge.

One thing is certain, there’s going to be a lot more research on early math performance and instruction. If researchers keep turning up surprising results like the Illinois study, early math education could be right on the verge of a serious overhaul.

RELATED: Early Math Success Best Indicator of Future Academic & Career Success

How important do you think it is for educators to have a better understanding of how young children learn math? Leave a comment!


Written By: Zorbit's Math Adventure

Written By: Zorbit's Math Adventure

Zorbit’s Math Adventure is a game-based learning program for K-3 math, created by a team of experienced teachers, educators, & game designers. The curriculum-based math activities engage young learners in rich, immersive environments that are cognitively & developmentally appropriate for their age. Aligned to all curricula within North America, Zorbit also delivers teachers a suite of tools & resources to help close learning gaps & differentiate instruction.


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