An innate ratio processing ability may serve as the building block for math knowledge and help in determining our aptitude for understanding fractions and other formal mathematical concepts, new research has found.
“Our findings suggest that human beings come wired with a sort of naive non-symbolic ratio processing ability and that differences in these abilities have meaningful effects on the development of mathematical thinking,” said Percival Matthews, psychological scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The researchers hypothesised that we must have some basic ability that allows us to reason, in an informal way, about proportions.
“The human brain existed way before we had things like math and reading, which means that however we do these things, we have to sort out recycle abilities that the brain already has,” Matthews said.
To investigate this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 181 college undergraduates to participate in their study. The students completed four tasks in which they had to compare ratio quantities represented by pairs of dot arrays or pairs of line segments.
The students completed several additional tasks that gauged their formal, or symbolic, math ability.
The researchers also examined students’ scores on the algebra placement test that they took when they entered university.
The results revealed an association between the students’ ability to gauge nonsymbolic ratios and their competence in symbolic math.
Students who were adept at processing pictorial ratios by comparing dots and lines also tended to be good at comparing fractions and estimating fractions on a number line.
But the association also extended to more general math skills. Students who scored higher on the pictorial ratios task also tended to be good at solving algebraic equations.
“We want to encourage psychologists, math education researchers, and educational practitioners to consider how actively trying to leverage these abilities might help improve fractions learning,” Matthews said.
The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.