Mathematics is rarely considered a favourite school subject by children and while a marked improvement in exam results can be achieved with the help of tutoring, not all students can benefit to the same degree from extra lessons.
US scientists investigating the behavioural and neural mechanisms that drive some children to acquire arithmetical skills faster than others found that just one brain structure can provide a sensitive marker of skill acquisition.
The team led by Kaustubh Supekar from the Stanford University School of Medicine in California published its findings in the journal PNAS.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure how a small group of 24 primary grade children aged between 8 and 9 responded to eight weeks of one-to-one mathematics tutoring.
The speed and accuracy of arithmetic problem solving increased with tutoring, with some children improving significantly more than others.
The scientists found that the size and connectivity of the hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, had the main impact on the level of progress made by each student.
By contrast, a high intelligence quotient or advanced skill at reading did not strongly link to performance improvements.
“Our findings provide evidence that individual differences in brain regions associated with learning and memory, and not regions typically involved in arithmetic processing, are strong predictors of responsiveness to math tutoring in children,” the researchers wrote.
The results help shed light on why some children are naturally better at learning mathematics at school than others.