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If You Struggle With Maths Problems It's Time To Use Your Fingers

Finger touching surface of water
Finger touching surface of water

Using your fingers to trace maths problems can make a huge difference to how you understand and solve problems. A new study by University of Sydney shows students who trace maths problems with their fingers, are able to solve them quickly and easily.

The study involved 275 Sydney school children aged between nine and 13. The students used their fingers to trace over practice examples while simultaneously reading geometry or arithmetic material. They were able to complete tasks more quickly and correctly than those who did not use the same technique.

Teachers have used finger-tracing since the early 1900s, when Maria Montessori -- founder of the Montessori schools -- got young children to trace over letters of the alphabet made from sandpaper with their index fingers.

While this approach was at the time based on intuition rather than evidence, later studies would confirm that finger tracing aids recognition of letters and shapes.

Dr Paul Ginns, Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology is "cautiously confident" such effects could be applied in classrooms and to subjects outside of maths.

“Montesorri was a great believer in what might be now multi-sensory learning. She developed a range of instructional educational activities which involve active learning across a range of senses as opposed to sitting down and listening. It was her intuition that, ‘this fixes the image in the child’s mind more readily more than simply looking',” said Dr Ginns.

“Fast forward 100 years: researchers started doing educational experiments to see if they have any validity. Early studies found tracing out letters does help greatly. Our research, found tracing out geometrical shapes helped kids recognise the shapes more easily. It’s a robust topic for early childhood but my big question was ‘can this idea be applied to more advanced topics, later in the syllabus?’”

“Sand paper letters inspired me. This is an activity for helping young kids, pre-schoolers, learn to recognise the letters of the alphabet. This activity involves cutting letters out of sand paper, then the kids sit with a teacher and they trace out with their fingers each of the letters, while the teacher pronounces it for them.”

Here’s how it works: we tend to pay more attention to things in our visual field when our hands are involved. Dr Ginns told The Huffington Post Australia that if you’re paying more attention, you’re more likely to learn.

“There’s a close link between visual processing and what your hands are doing. Think about people who use their hands when they’re talking. We’re now starting to realise, just how close the link is between hand movements and cognitive processing. It seems like we use hand movements to organise our thoughts and get our thoughts out. People might be on the phone and gesturing. The other person is not in sight, so it has no direct communicative value, but it still plays a role.”

Yet, researchers are only now starting to explore if finger tracing’s benefits could extend to more complex mathematical tasks that require higher levels of abstract thinking and problem solving.

Dr Ginns said the findings have a range of implications for teachers and students alike. They show maths learning by young students may be enhanced substantially with the simple addition of instructions to finger-trace elements of maths problem.

"At the classroom level, teachers can assist students to learn new mathematical content by giving instructions to ‘trace over’ the important elements of worked examples that already appear in mathematics textbooks or worksheets. This simple, zero-cost teaching approach can enhance the effectiveness of mathematics instruction across multiple areas of the subject.”

The research is published in Learning and Instruction and Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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