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A recent study in The Journal of Neuroscience shows that knowing basic math facts – stuff like 7+5=12 – results in higher scores by high school seniors on the PSAT (a common form of the familiar SAT college prep test).

Even though the math problems on the PSAT are much more complicated than basic arithmetic, those students who could automatically recall basic arithmetic facts were able to solve difficult PSAT math problems more easily than students who had to think to generate basic facts. The less-successful students used a part of the brain involved in effortful problem solving more than the students who were most successful. They had to think harder more of the time.

Researchers were a bit surprised. One would think that using higher level thinking more would result in more correct answers. But this was not the case. Students who had memorized basic facts for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division so that they didn’t have to think much at all to retrieve those facts used complex brain areas less and got the right answers to complex questions more often.

This should make us all stop and think. Even though calculators are easily accessible, children shouldn’t rely on them. It’s important that the old-fashioned work of memorizing math facts continue. Kids do better in math when they achieve fluency with basic facts and can remember them automatically.

Many of us who memorized facts as third and fourth graders now reach for the calculator to answer questions like, “What’s 7 times 8?” But we should be careful. Letting ourselves – and our older children and teens – rely on a machine for basic facts makes us all not so smart. It’s often the little things that make the difference between a solid entrance exam result and a not-so-good one. One of those little things appears to be a poor memory for easy math.

And, of course, it’s not just college entrance that matters. Solutions to everyday problems rely on what kids learn in grade-school. Skills like spelling and basic facts matter.

Has your child practiced her basic facts today?

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.