Improving arithmetic performance with number sense training: an investigation of underlying mechanism.
A nonverbal primitive number sense allows approximate estimation and mental manipulations on numerical quantities without the use of numerical symbols. In a recent randomized controlled intervention study in adults, we demonstrated that repeated training on a non-symbolic approximate arithmetic task resulted in improved exact symbolic arithmetic performance, suggesting a causal relationship between the primitive number sense and arithmetic competence. Here, we investigate the potential mechanisms underlying this causal relationship. We constructed multiple training conditions designed to isolate distinct cognitive components of the approximate arithmetic task. We then assessed the effectiveness of these training conditions in improving exact symbolic arithmetic in adults. We found that training on approximate arithmetic, but not on numerical comparison, numerical matching, or visuo-spatial short-term memory, improves symbolic arithmetic performance. In addition, a second experiment revealed that our approximate arithmetic task does not require verbal encoding of number, ruling out an alternative explanation that participants use exact symbolic strategies during approximate arithmetic training. Based on these results, we propose that nonverbal numerical quantity manipulation is one key factor that drives the link between the primitive number sense and symbolic arithmetic competence. Future work should investigate whether training young children on approximate arithmetic tasks even before they solidify their symbolic number understanding is fruitful for improving readiness for math education.
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