MARCH 26, 2001

The Straits Times, Singapore
Asian maths scores: It's all in the head

Asians do better as they memorise basic maths while they are at school, says a Canadian researcher, adding that genes have nothing to do with it

By R Senthilnathan

JUST why Asian students excel in maths may well be all in their heads.

A Canadian researcher has concluded that they do better in the subject because they memorise basic maths while they are at school.

Professor Jamie Campbell, who teaches psychology at the University of Saskatchewan in western Canada, analysed data collected from 72 students at the university to come to this conclusion.

His findings are to be published later this year in the prestigious Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General.

A recent study done in 38 nations found out that eighth-graders from Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan performed better in maths than their counterparts in the West.

Similarly, students of Asian origin have performed well in the maths segment of the United States' standard entrance exams, known as SAT.

To study the issue of maths and Asians, Prof Campbell chose the 72 students from three different backgrounds - students educated in China, Canadian students of Asian origin and non-Chinese students.

The study was done in two parts: in the first part, the students were tested for their elementary maths skills, such as answering how much three plus two is and how much 25 divided by five is.

The Chinese educated in China were the fastest in giving the answers to these questions while the non-Asians were the slowest - about 25 per cent slower.

The professor said that, on average, the Chinese-educated and Canadian-educated Chinese used their memories about 85 per cent of the time to answer such problems, whereas the non-Asians used it only about 70 per cent of the time.

The second part contained mathematical questions of a more complex nature, usually involving multi-step processing - such as providing the answer for 10 plus five plus eight.

This requires the student to memorise the answer to the first set before tackling the next set.

Here, he said, the results were different and more pronounced with the Chinese-educated undergraduates doing better than both the non-Asians and Canadian-educated Chinese.

While the Canadian-educated Chinese fared worse than their Chinese-educated colleagues, they still scored better than their non-Asian counterparts - providing more correct answers 19 per cent of the time.

'What we found out was that, if you used a calculator, you did not perform well in answering complex questions. If you did not use one, then you performed well in complex mathematics,' he said.

One thing is certain, though - there is no relation between maths, Asians and genetics.

Previous studies done on older-generation Asians and North Americans have shown that their mathematical skills were equal, which proves that the present proficiency of Asian students is connected to how they learn their maths and not to any genetic influence, Prof Campbell said.

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