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Boys' Impulsiveness May Add Up to Edge in Math

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Being more impulsive than girls may give boys an edge in math, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Missouri found boys and girls have different approaches to solving math problems when they start school. Boys often rely on their memory, while girls prefer to solve problems more carefully. Although the boys' approach may cause them to make more mistakes than girls early on, the researchers found they surpass girls later.

The observed difference in arithmetic accuracy between the sexes might stem from a "willingness to risk being wrong by answering from memory before one is sure of the correct answer," study co-author Drew Bailey, a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of Missouri, explained in a university news release. "In our study, we found that boys were more likely to call out answers than girls, even though they were less accurate early in school. Over time, though, this practice at remembering answers may have allowed boys to surpass girls in accuracy."

In conducting the study, the researchers followed about 300 students from first grade through sixth grade. Boys in the first and second grade answered math problems quickly, often calling out answers from memory. Girls, on the other hand, preferred to take their time and calculate their answers. As a result, they responded more slowly to fewer questions.

The researchers noted that by solving problems more carefully, the girls made fewer mistakes than the boys. By the time the children reached sixth grade, however, the boys were not only answering more math questions, but also getting more answers correct.

"Developing mathematical skill may be part 'practice makes perfect' and part 'perfect makes practice,'" explained Bailey. "Attempting more answers from memory gives risk-takers more practice, which may eventually lead to improvements in accuracy. It also is possible that children who are skilled at certain strategies are more likely to use them and therefore acquire more practice."

The researchers said their findings could help parents and teachers guide individual students in math and improve their performance.

"Parents can give their children an advantage by making them comfortable with numbers and basic math before they start grade school, so that the children will have fewer trepidations about calling out answers," study co-author David Geary, a professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri, said in the news release. "As an adult, it seems easy to remember basic math facts, but in children's brains the networks are still forming. It could be that trying to answer a problem from memory engages those networks and improves them, even if the answers aren't correct at first. In time, the brain develops improved memories and more correct answers result."

The study, recently published online, appears in the September print issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides more information on how to help girls overcome the education gender gap.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: University of Missouri, news release, July 27, 2012

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