Study: What Brain Scans Reveal About Learning Math


By Laura Hoxworth

A new UVA study will examine brain data of elementary-age students to explore how memory systems support math learning. (Illustration by Ziniu Chen, University Communications)

When you’re solving a challenging math problem, you know your brain is working hard. But what, exactly, is going on in there? Despite decades of research into math teaching and learning, there is still much to learn about how specific brain functions are tied to math skills.

A new University of Virginia study aims to unlock that knowledge. Funded by a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the five-year study will examine brain data of elementary-age students to explore how memory systems support math learning.

Tanya Evans, who joined UVA’s School of Education and Human Development faculty in 2018, will lead the study in collaboration with Ian Lyons at Georgetown University. In the relatively new, interdisciplinary field of educational neuroscience, Evans studies brain data to understand the fundamental building blocks of how children learn.

“Some of our previous work points to behavioral evidence for memory systems supporting math skills, so this was a way to extend that into the brain domain and understand the mechanism by which that occurs,” she said.

Why study math skills in particular? Despite an abundance of research into how memory affects important early learning skills like language and reading, Evans said, the fundamental memory systems that underpin math learning are poorly understood.

Evans is part of the integrated Translational Research Health Institute of Virginia, or iTHRIV, a multi-institutional collaboration that facilitates health-related research across Virginia. The organization, where Evans holds a position as a scholar, focuses on connecting researchers with the resources they need to serve the needs of the commonwealth through interdisciplinary, team-based research. This work is also supported through the Supporting Transformative Autism Research initiative at UVA. Evans’ mentors as an iTHRIV scholar are Kevin Pelphrey, Harrison-Wood Jefferson Scholars Foundation Professor of Neurology, and Steve Boker, a professor of quantitative psychology, both of UVA.

“UVA is extremely collaborative,” Evans said. “The field I work in is incredibly interdisciplinary, so it’s important to have a supportive environment that lends itself to that collaboration and opens lines across schools. It’s quite easy for administration and bureaucracy to get in the way of collaborative science, but UVA does a great job of breaking down those boundaries.”

The study will focus on two key memory systems: declarative memory, or remembering facts, data and events; and procedural memory, a type of long-term memory related to performing tasks or skills, like riding a bike or tying your shoes.

Researchers plan to gather brain data by scanning children’s brains with magnetic resonance imaging machines, or MRIs, while the children complete arithmetic tasks and declarative and procedural memory tasks.

The longitudinal study will enroll two groups of children in first through fifth grades. Both groups will participate in two rounds of MRI scans over two years, so that researchers can track how their brains change over time. “We find that kids do better than adults with MRIs in general because they’re used to playing in small places,” Evans said. “For them, it’s like a game.”

By looking for similarities in brain activity when children complete memory tasks and math tasks, researchers hope to establish a link between memory and math. Ultimately, by revealing neurological links between specific memory systems and important math skills, the results could help adults better teach math – for children with and without learning difficulties.

“If we find that certain parts of these memory skills are really important for certain parts of math learning, we can use that to potentially design interventions that use these skills to bolster math learning,” she explained.

But Evans has bigger ideas for how brain data can eventually help researchers, teachers and caregivers understand how best to help children thrive in school. She hopes that studies like this one could be applied to numerous other types of learning.

“Big picture, I’m interested in school readiness skills,” Evans said. Readiness skills include not only math and reading, but also socio-emotional skills like listening and cooperating with others, which are equally important in the classroom.

 With growing opportunities for interdisciplinary research provided by programs like iTHRIV, she is likely to continue this type of research in the future. “It’s been incredible to interact with other scholars, to have the opportunity to gain mentors more broadly across Grounds, and to just learn a lot about team science,” she said.

“Tanya definitely is somebody who epitomizes the team science aspect, which is one of the cornerstones for our program – team science and data science,” said Jennifer Kirkham, iTHRIV Scholars program manager. “She’s an exceptional role model for folks on incorporating team science and working across disciplines in projects.”