The notion that boys are better at math and girls are better at language is a common one, but it doesn't necessarily encompass the whole picture. A recent study shows that boys’ attitude toward math problems may be what helps them in the long run, rather than a natural aptitude for arithmetics.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri and published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Through it, researchers noted that girls prefer to work at math problems more slowly but with more accuracy, while boys generally prefer faster methods that may not be as accurate, such as reciting answers from memory rather than taking the time to compute these. As a result, girls tend to do better in earlier years of school, but boys pull ahead by the sixth grade.

According to researcher and psychological scientist Drew Bailey, PhD, "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."

Dr. Bailey explains why boys who shoot out more answers that may or may not be correct seem to perform better than girls who take the time to verify their answers before volunteering them. He 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."

Co-author and psychological science professor David Geary has a few suggestions for parents looking to help their kids improve in math: "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. 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."

In short? Encourage your kids to participate in class and voice their answers and opinions, even if these later turn out to be wrong. It helps them train their brains in the kind of exercises they may need later on.


(Screencap from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

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