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Tutoring changes the brain in kids with math learning disabilities

A new Stanford study, publishing today in Nature Communications, sheds light on how to help children with math learning disabilities. One-on-one cognitive tutoring improves math performance in these children and also normalizes brain activity in several regions important for numerical problem solving, the research found.

The findings are important because math learning disabilities often fall off educators' and parents' radar. (Everyone has heard of dyslexia, but its numerical equivalent, dyscalculia? Not so much.) Yet math learning disabilities can hamper a child's ability to gain basic life skills such as managing time and money, and can prevent children from growing up to pursue math- and science-related careers.

The new study is similar to another recent experiment that demonstrated alleviation of math anxiety with tutoring. Both studies are the work of the Stanford MathBrain Project, directed by Vinod Menon, PhD. Teresa Iuculano, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar working with Menon, is the new study's lead author.

In the new research, 30 children in third grade received eight weeks of one-on-one tutoring in basic arithmetic skills; half of the kids had math learning disabilities and half did not. The instructors adjusted the sessions' pace and emphasis individually for each child, helping students past bottlenecks in their learning without making them feel like they might be falling behind their peers. All of the children got MRI brain scans before and after tutoring.

Before tutoring began, the kids with math learning disabilities had abnormal function in a network of brain areas involved in solving numerical problems, including the parietal, prefrontal and ventral temporal-occipital areas. Kids without math learning disabilities did not show these problems. After tutoring, the differences between the two groups' brain scans disappeared. The children's math performance also improved, in sync with the brain changes.

These findings suggest that tutoring actually fixes the brain issues at the root of math learning disabilities, rather than providing children with a work-around that circumvents the real problem.

"We demonstrate that, in parallel with performance normalization, 1:1 tutoring elicits extensive functional brain changes in children with math learning disabilities, normalizing their brain activity to the level of neurotypical peers," the researchers wrote in their paper.

The scientists want to conduct follow-up studies to find out how long the effects of tutoring last. Their new discoveries also lay a framework for studying how to intervene in other forms of learning disabilities.

Previously: Stanford team shows that one-on-one tutoring relieves math anxiety in children, Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids' math skills and New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain
Photo by U.S. Department of Education

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