The type of cognitive exercises practised by young children plays a key role in improving their maths skills, researchers have found.

A new large-scale study found that reasoning and visual working memory exercises had the biggest impact on mathematical performance in a group of children who completed cognitive training.

The results support the idea that training spatial cognition can boost academic performance and in maths, the type of training matters.

A group of 17,000 Swedish children aged from six to eight took part in cognitive training every day over the course of seven weeks. During the first week, they all completed identical training exercises before taking part in one of five training plans.

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet found that reasoning training had the largest impact, followed by working memory exercises. Both types of training outperformed rotation training in terms of improvement in maths.

Torkel Klingberg, professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet, said: “In this large, randomised study we found that when it comes to enhancing mathematical learning in young children, the type of cognitive training performed plays a significant role. It is an important finding because it provides strong evidence that cognitive training transfers to an ability that is different from the one you practiced.”

There have been a number of studies that have linked spatial ability – understanding dimensional relations among objects – to performance in areas including science, maths and engineering. Spatial ability tests are used by some employers as part of their recruitment process and some schools use spatial exercises. However, past studies which explored their impact on academic performance have produced mixed results, so large, randomised studies are needed to examine the full impact of spatial cognition training.

The latest study by the Karolinska Institutet researchers is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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