Cognitive and emotional background of mathematical development: The role of working memory and executive attention in context
Grantee: University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Researcher: Dénes Szücs, Ph.D.
Grant Title: Cognitive and emotional background of mathematical development: The role of working memory and executive attention in context
Program Area: Understanding Human Cognition
Grant Type: Scholar Award
Year Awarded: 2013
Duration: 6 years
Human mathematics is the fascinating product of thousands of years of cultural
evolution and it is more important than ever in today's technologically advanced societies.
Still, a considerable proportion of adults have very poor mathematical competence, several
children have mathematical learning disabilities and others show high anxiety levels about
situations involving mathematics. This research programme aims to understand both
cognitive and emotional aspects of mathematical development in primary school where
important building blocks of human specific mathematical knowledge are put in place.
Taking an Educational Neuroscience approach we study how the full range of educational
achievements relate to cognitive and emotional factors in children with mathematical learning
problems, typically achieving children and gifted children. Improved knowledge will enable
us to prevent and/or remediate cognitive and emotional mathematical learning problems. This
will ultimately improve the level of mathematical competence in the whole of the population.
About 6% of children have developmental dyscalculia which is a specific learning
difficulty of mathematics. Children with developmental dyscalculia have normal intelligence
and their reading skills may be perfect. We aim to determine whether developmental
dyscalculia and relatively weak or particularly strong mathematical ability can be related to
individual variability in exactly specified components of memory function and executive
attention. We also study how these cognitive factors relate to logical reasoning ability.
Developmental dyscalculia can only be understood in the context of normal development
because both children and the mathematical curriculum are constantly changing during
schooling. Hence, we pay special attention to mapping how normal mathematical competence
develops during each year of primary school and how the particularly weak and strong
performers differ from typical achievers. The study of gifted children may enable us to
understand how typical and weak performers can achieve similarly strong performance.
Besides cognitive difficulties a substantial number of children and adults have
mathematics anxiety, a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics. Mathematics anxiety
is clearly distinguishable from general anxiety and it ranges from a feeling of mild tension to
experiencing a strong fear of mathematics. Mathematics anxiety may generalize to various
situations with the consequence that otherwise perfectly intelligent and capable persons
develop a severe avoidance of situations involving any kinds of mathematics and do not
choose careers involving the application of mathematics. One line of our research examines
what triggers mathematics anxiety in children. Further, we investigate developmental
dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety in a joint framework because emotional and cognitive
processes are likely intertwined. For example, mathematics anxiety is known to reduce the
amount of memory resources available for mathematical function which negatively impacts
mathematical achievement. In addition, we aim to understand whether having developmental
dyscalculia facilitates the appearance of mathematics anxiety and vice versa.