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Mathematical Bedtime Stories Significantly Improve School Performance

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Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

2957 Mathematical Bedtime Stories Significantly Improve School Performance
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What was your favorite bedtime story as a child? Humpty Dumpty? Little Red Riding Hood? Whatever it was, I somehow doubt it involved mathematical problems. As impractical as it sounds, a new study published in Science has suggested that you should work through math problems with your offspring before they fall asleep on school nights. Doing so for one night a week could dramatically improve their math skills over the course of just one school year.

Researchers at the University of Chicago recruited 587 first-graders from 22 schools, both public and private, from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. They handed each family a tablet computer containing one of two apps. The first was a simple reading app – this was given to 167 families, who were the controls. The majority of the families were given the second app, an independently created program called Bedtime Math containing word problems related to numerical tests – including arithmetic, fractions and probability, along with a selection of visual tests involving shapes. This experiment was carried out over nine months and the parents were allowed to use the app as many or as few times as they liked, as long as it was used at least once a week before bedtime.

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As one would expect, the reading app had a negligible effect on the children’s mathematical performances in school over the school year. Children using the Bedtime Math app at least two or three times per week, on the other hand, outperformed their classmates who rarely used it.

"It's like they've had three months more of math instruction," Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and an author of this new study, told Science. "In the real world that's a pretty big effect."

Not only that, but use of the app brought students who had parents ill at ease with teaching math up to speed with students whose parents were confident teaching math. Even using the math app once a week closed the performance gap between the two groups.

Importantly, this study wasn’t a trial – it was used by real families in real life, so its effectiveness has been proven across a range of pupils from a variety of backgrounds. However, as Janet Bowers – a math education researcher at San Diego State University in California not involved in the study – told Science, 70% of the pupils in the study came from middle- and upper-middle class families, suggesting that the study cannot be generalized to the wider populace of schoolchildren just yet.

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Is the timing of the math teaching important? The study doesn’t offer a hypothesis, but it could perhaps be related to the findings of a 2012 study. Participants were requested to memorize related word pairs (e.g. cat – kitten) and unrelated word pairs (e.g. chocolate – printer). They were then split into two groups: those who learned the word pairs at 9 p.m. then went to sleep, and those who learned the word pairs at the start of the day at 9 a.m. Both groups were then asked, after waking, to recall both sets of word pairs.

Although there was no difference in the ability to recall the related word pairs, the group that slept immediately after learning them at 9 p.m. far outperformed the other group when asked to recall the unrelated pairs.

Forming new neural connections, in this case connecting unrelated pieces of information together for the first time, is far improved when learning is done just before sleeping. The same could perhaps apply to learning new math skills before bedtime.


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