Stroke of genius: How touching maths problems helps children understand them
Feb 20, 2016 | News
Children who use their fingers to trace maths problems are able to solve them more quickly and easily, according to new research.
A University of Sydney study involving 275 school children aged between nine and 13 found that tracing over elements of maths problems enhanced students’ understanding of geometry and algebra.
Tests revealed students who used their finger to trace over practice examples while simultaneously reading geometry or arithmetic material were able to complete tasks more quickly and correctly than those who did not use the technique.
“Our findings have a range of implications for teachers and students,” said Dr Paul Ginns, Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology at USYD.
“They show maths learning by young students may be enhanced substantially with the simple addition of instructions to finger trace elements of maths problems.
“We’re cautiously confident such effects could be applied in the classroom and to subjects outside of maths, but more research is clearly required,” he said.
Dr Ginns and co-researchers Janette Bobis, Fang-Tzu Hu and Erin Byrne believe using an index finger to physically touch and trace the angles of a triangle, for example, can result in that information receiving processing priority in the brain.
They believe the action reduces the load on working memory and its ability to retain complex material by ‘chunking’ information together.
“At the classroom level, teachers can assist students to learn new mathematical content by giving instructions to ‘trace over’ the important elements of worked examples that already appear in mathematics textbooks or worksheets,” said Dr Ginns.
“This simple, zero-cost teaching approach can enhance the effectiveness of mathematics instruction across multiple areas of the subject.”
The research is published in Learning and Instruction and Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Teachers have used finger-tracing since the early 1900s, when pioneering educator Maria Montessori taught young children to trace over letters of the alphabet made from sandpaper with their index fingers.
While this approach was based on intuition rather than evidence, Dr Ginns says researchers are now beginning to explore the benefits of finger tracing in solving more complex maths, which requires higher levels of abstract thinking and problem solving.