Date Published: 28 June 2012
Approximate Number Sense (ANS) increases in first 30 years of life
A person's approximate number sense (ANS) is his or her ability to estimate quantities accurately. The ability to estimate quantities, e.g. how many items of a certain type or colour are on a shelf or table, is one of the basic elements of cognition.
Scientists working in the United States have found that a person's approximate number sense (ability to estimate quantity) becomes increasingly precise during the first 30 years of his or her life. They also found that this intuitive grasp of numbers is associated with mathematical skills at every stage of life.
Before the recent study was undertaken it had been reported that ninth graders with a math disability were more likely to have an imprecise number sense. A correlation had also been found between an inherent grasp of quantity and such basic number skills as counting among children as young as 3 years old.
The recent conclusion that the approximate number sense improves from birth through a person's childhood, teens, and twenties also hints at the possibility that environmental factors, such as education, may influence the strength of the approximate number sense and that education could help improve it. Because approximate number sense proficiency is linked to mathematical ability, instruction to improve a child's approximate number sense might be used to prevent the development of maths learning disability or help to overcome such a challenges, according to researchers.
" People who struggle with a math learning disability may also struggle with day-to-day tasks such as estimating a bill or judging calories as part of a diet," said Kathy Mann Koepke, Ph.D., of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the NIH institute that supported the study. " Research shows that differences in math ability in school can have a large impact on later health, as well as income, over a lifetime."
People use an intuitive number sense to estimate and compare quantities in everyday life as well as in the classroom. For example, people use this sense when judging which line to enter at the grocery store. In human beings, this sense is present from birth. Studies have shown that many animals also have an innate ability to estimate quantities.
How the research was conducted:
- Researchers posted a 10-minute test on their website, http://www.panamath.org.
- Each participant completed a brief questionnaire that included questions about his or her own mathematical ability, performance in science and language classes, and level of computer skill.
- During the test itself participants were shown varying quantities of blue and yellow dots and each time were asked to estimate whether they saw more blue or more yellow dots.
- More than 10,000 people from around the world took the test.
- Researchers catalogued the scores according to the age of the participants age.
Researcher observations & results:
The study authors noted that recruiting study volunteers on the internet enabled them to recruit a larger and more diverse group of participants than would have been possible in a conventional laboratory setting. They found a pattern in which older people within the age range 15-30 years typically had better ANS ability than younger people, which implies that ANS improves over time with development and/or experience, up until about 30 years of age. However, a greater number of participants over the age of 60 had a less precise number system. This was a general trend over a large population, with a high degree of individual variation suggesting ANS ability might fade over time in some people - but not everyone. The researchers also found that a more precise number sense corresponded with participants' self-rating of their math ability, controlling for age, science, language, and computer skills.
" We saw people in their 70s with scores as precise as the best-performing 30-year-olds," said Halberda.
" At the same time, 1 adult in 8 had an ANS score that was less precise than a typical 11-year-old child."
The researchers said that educational efforts to improve number sense might help people across a wide range of ages.
" It appears that there is a large window of opportunity to intervene," said Halberda.
" A precise ANS may be the foundation on which we build formal mathematical skills, and if that's true, early help for children at risk for math disability could have a big, lifelong impact. However, these results suggest that we might help adults too, by trying to refine their ANS."
First author Justin Halberda, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, conducted the research with Hopkins colleagues Ryan Ly and Daniel Q. Naiman, Ph.D., Jeremy B. Wilmer, Ph.D., of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and Laura Germine, Ph.D., of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
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Institutes of Health (NIH), USA.