What can cognitive psychology tell us about the challenges of learning mathematics (and what do we still not know)?

Camilla Gilmore, Lucy Cragg, Victoria Simms

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A wide variation in children’s mathematics skills is observable from the earliest stages of mathematics instruction (Aubrey et al., 2006). Not only do children begin school with different levels of numeracy skills but mathematics skills also develop at different rates (Xenidou-Dervou et al., 2018). Researchers in cognitive and developmental psychology are interested in understanding how these differences arise and how far they can be explained by differences in children’s cognitive skills.

Research has identified a range of cognitive skills that are associated with mathematics outcomes. Some skills are specifically associated with learning mathematics, while others are associated with learning in general. Below, we give examples of these skills and how they may be important for mathematics. We also highlight how this research may be helpful for teachers and the limitations of what the research can tell us. It should be noted that the majority of this research has focused on numeracy and arithmetic; we know less about the cognitive skills associated with mathematical topics such as algebra, geometry and statistics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-25
Number of pages3
Early online date20 Jan 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Jan 2020


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