There is something to be said for the old school method of drilling math facts and speed tests. Between eight and nine years old, while “they’re still learning fundamental addition and subtraction”[1], a child’s brain switches from counting to “fact retrieval”[2].

Stanford University researchers, in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), used MRI machines to watch what occurred in the brain as children were asked to solve a series of simple addition problems.[3] They were also tested face to face, so researchers could see if the children used fingers or counted in their head to come up with the answer. Then they tested again, a year later.[4]

What researchers discovered, is that as children got older, they relied more on memory, and retrieval times were faster. What was going on in the brain? It appeared as though the child’s brain was re-organized as they learnt more math.[5] Scans showed “less activity in the prefrontal and parietal regions associated with counting and more in the brain’s memory centre, the hippocampus.”[6]

The hippocampus is essentially the relay station in your brain, “where new memories com in…and then can be sent elsewhere for longer-term storage and retrieval.”[7] The stronger the hippocampus connections, the faster the brain is at retrieving from long-term storage. The study looked at 20 adults and gave them the same basic addition questions.[8] What they say was that there was very little activity at all, because the connections were so strong, retrieving the answer from long-term storage was almost automatic.[9]

Researchers believe how well a child’s brain can re-organize itself, and make the switch to fact retrieval, can “predict their ultimate math achievement. Those who fall behind are impairing or slowing down their math learning later on.”[10]

So rote learning- where children memorize facts through repetition- is an integral component of learning. And while the study focused on math, the same conclusions can be extended to any subject of study. After all, “kids who match sounds to letters earlier learn to read faster.”[11]

The next phase of research is most exciting! They will now begin looking at what “goes wrong in this system in children with math learning disabilities, so that scientists might try new strategies to help them learn.”[12]


[1] Neergaard, Lauran. “Why your math memory matters.” The Toronto Star 18 Aug. 2014: n. pag. The Star. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. Accessed from http://www.thestar.com/life/2014/08/18/why_your_math_memory_matters.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Scan shows kid’s brains reorganize when learning math.” The Telegram [St.John’s ] 19 Aug. 2014: n. pag. The Telegram. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. Accessed from http://www.thetelegram.com/Living/2014-08-19/article-3838855/Scans-show-kids%26rsquo%3B-brains-reorganize-when-learning-math/1

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Neergaard. “Why you math memory matters.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.