The process of searching for the best program to help your child with math can be daunting. There are a variety of factors that need to be considered, one of which is the method of instruction. Math Genie’s Abacus Math program utilizes the abacus to help students learn ways to quickly calculate large sums. One critical advantage of this ancient tool is the reduced strain on short term memory and increased neuroplasticity.
What Is Short Term Memory?
Simply put, there are two basic kinds of memory: short term and long term. While the long term memory stores a vast and unlimited collection of procedures, knowledge, facts, and experiences, short term memory is limited (Cowan, 2008; McLeod, 2010). Short term memories, which are of limited duration and limited capacity, are utilized by distinct cognitive processes in what is known as the working memory (Cowan, 2008; McLeod, 2009). Short term memory has been studied in humans around the globe for centuries. For many years Princeton University psychologist G.A. Miller’s landmark 1956 study suggested that the human short term memory can hold seven plus or minus two units of information (Goldberg, 2010). However, more recent research shows that this so called “magic number” varies depending on the type of information stored (Ericson, 2013; Goldberg, 2010; Jacobsen, 2013). While the number is approximately seven for numbers, it can be as low as four for other types of information (Ericson, 2013; Jacobsen, 2013).
Recent research shows a decline in short-term memory tied to the prevalence of technology (Ericson, 2013; Goldberg, 2010). The advent of technology has put less strain on the human memory as we now trust devices to remember phone numbers, email addresses, appointments, and errands for us (Goldberg, 2010). Similarly, the constant availability of calculators has created a sense of diminished need for knowledge of arithmetic skills. The internet and social media sites such as Facebook overstimulate the brain and diminish the capacity of the short term memory (Ericson, 2013).
School Math and Short Term Memory
In school, elementary school students are presented with a wide array of techniques to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Students are taught addition and subtraction using ten frames, number bonds, and number decomposition, and multiplication with the box method, lattice method, and array models. Learning each of these techniques takes up more space in the short term memory than most elementary students have. While there are many merits to the way the Common Core focuses on problem solving, it does not do anything to reduce the strain on a student’s short term memory. Another issue that students face with math as taught in school is the tendency to forget a technique once they stop practicing it. Students forget as much as 75 percent of learned material learned a week after they take a test and move onto new topics or techniques (Terada, 2017). In order to get the questions right, they need to review the material (Willingham, 2015; Terada, 2017). This is not the same for abacus students because abacus math improves calculating skills and working memory (Dong et al., 2016).
Abacus Math & Short Term Memory
Abacus math works differently than what is taught in school because the core skills taught when students first learn the abacus, big and small buddies, are used at all levels of work. The method used never changes so it becomes embedded in their long term memory. There is no need for these students to memorize addition facts as they have the skills to solve any problem. These students don’t have the same challenges that students who don’t learn abacus face in terms of retention.
Additionally, recent research highlights the positive impact the abacus has on short term memory. Dong et al. (2016) found that working on the abacus activates the frontoparietal areas used by the working memory. Math on the abacus increases neuroplasticity in the brain, making it work faster and the learning of new topics easier than it is for those who have not learned to use the abacus (Dong et al., 2016; Wang et al., 2019). An additional study found that abacus training enhances high-level cognitive process (Li et al, 2013). Learning math on the abacus reduces strain on the short term memory. It is an empirically validated technique that helps students to become stronger mathematicians.
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Dong, S., Wang, C., Xie, Y., Hu, Y., Weng, J., & Chen, F. (2016). The impact of abacus training on working memory and underlying neural correlates in young adults. Neuroscience, 33(2), 181-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.06.051
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Li, Y., Hu, Y., Zhao, M., Wang, Y., Huang, J., & Chen, F. (2013). The neural pathway underlying a numerical working memory task in abacus-trained children and associated functional connectivity in the resting brain. Brain Research, 1539, 24-33. Http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2013.09.030
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Terada, Y. (2017). Why students forget—and what you can do about it. [Web]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-students-forget-and-what-you-can-do-about-it
Wang, C., Xu, T., Geng, F., Hu, Y., Wang, Y., Liu, H., & Chen, F. (2019). Training on abacus-based mental calculation enhances visuospatial working memory in children. Neuroscience, 39(33), 6439-6448. http://dx.doi.org/0.1523/JNEUROSCI.3195-18.2019
Willingham, D. T. (2015). Do Students remember what they learn in school? [Web]. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/ae/fall2015/willingham1