account arrow-down-linearrow-down-small arrow-downarrow-download arrow-left-small arrow-leftarrow-link arrow-rightarrow-upaudio-less-volume audio-not-playing audio-plus-volume audio awarded books calendar close-modal closedate delete document education emailevent Facebookhamburger impact instagramjustice linkedin location-outline location opinion page phonepinterestplay pluspost preview project reports search-bigsearch-old search share star-full star-open startime twitterwelfare youtube zoom-in zoom-out

Older teenagers and young adults quicker to learn maths skills than younger teenagers

By Nuffield Foundation

Older teenagers and young adults are able to improve their fundamental maths skills and reasoning abilities more rapidly than younger teens.

These findings, from research undertaken by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at UCL and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, are in contrast to the common assumption that ‘earlier is better’ for learning and highlight late adolescence and adulthood as a potential window of opportunity for educational interventions.

The results also suggest that relational reasoning, which is often a part of IQ tests, develops over the course of adolescence and is highly susceptible to training. This highlights that IQ is not necessarily a stable characteristic of the individual and calls into question the use of IQ tests for entrance exams in schools.

Education policy tends to focus on early life interventions, a practise that is partly based on the economics of early-life investment and while the researchers acknowledge that early education is undoubtedly important for many cognitive skills such as visual or language development, certain complex cognitive skills related to mathematics may be best trained relatively late in development, from 15 onwards.

How the research was conducted

The research team randomly assigned 633 adolescents and adults aged between 11 and 33 to one of three groups who underwent training in cognitive tasks for up to 20 days.

  • One group was trained to discriminate small from large numerosities – number of items there are in a given set, an important skill as we often have to compare and judge quantities in our everyday life.
  • The second group was trained in relational reasoning, which is the ability to detect abstract relationships between groups of items and is related to fluid intelligence.

Both these skills are relevant to education and correlate with mathematics.

  • The third group was trained in face perception, which is not related to mathematics. This group served as a control group.
Results
  • Participants in the first group showed improved performance, but only those aged 15-33.
  • All age groups improved their performance when trained in relational reasoning, but older adolescents and adults showed the highest training benefits.
  • Face processing showed limited training effects and no differences between age groups.

These findings suggest that skills relating to mathematics are more efficiently learned in late adolescence and adulthood than earlier in adolescence. These findings highlight the relevance of this late developmental stage for education, and challenge the assumption that ‘earlier is always better’ for learning.

Related


Explore our projects

New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Comparisons of cognitive skills and educational attainment across the UK

View project
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2020

Measuring the disadvantage attainment gap in 16-19 education

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Teacher supply, shortages and working conditions in England and Wales

View project
Teenage-pupil-wearing-woolly-hat-writes-on-whiteboard-The-influence-of-headteachers-on-their-schools-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The influence of headteachers on their schools

View project
Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

View project
Two teenage male pupils study a science lesson as part of their post-16 options
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Post-16 pathways: the role of peers, family background and expectations

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Exploring the impact of curriculum policy on choice, attainment and destinations

View project
man reading picture book to baby
New

Education | 2019 - 2022

Do infants learn new words from educational picture books?

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2022

The SWAN game-based approach to learning foundational number language

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2020

Education priorities in a forthcoming general election

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Family Nurse Partnership: what works in England and Germany

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Comparisons of cognitive skills and educational attainment across the UK

View project
Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

View project
Teenage-pupil-wearing-woolly-hat-writes-on-whiteboard-The-influence-of-headteachers-on-their-schools-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The influence of headteachers on their schools

View project
Young-child-blurred-in-background-plays-with-abacus-in-foreground-Early-years-employment-pathways-PROJ
New

Education | 2019 - 2020

A systematic review of early years degrees and employment pathways

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Teacher supply, shortages and working conditions in England and Wales

View project
man reading picture book to baby
New

Education | 2019 - 2022

Do infants learn new words from educational picture books?

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

View project
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2020

Measuring the disadvantage attainment gap in 16-19 education

View project
Two teenage male pupils study a science lesson as part of their post-16 options
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Post-16 pathways: the role of peers, family background and expectations

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2020

Education priorities in a forthcoming general election

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

‘Intractable’ schools: can an Ofsted judgment prevent sustainable improvement?

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2022

The SWAN game-based approach to learning foundational number language

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Comparisons of cognitive skills and educational attainment across the UK

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Competitive effects of free schools on student outcomes in neighbouring schools

View project
Teenage-pupil-wearing-woolly-hat-writes-on-whiteboard-The-influence-of-headteachers-on-their-schools-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The influence of headteachers on their schools

View project
Two young girls being taught fractions and decimals, learning from a school workbook together
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

Teaching fractions and decimals to children aged 3 to 11

View project
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2020

Measuring the disadvantage attainment gap in 16-19 education

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

Teacher supply, shortages and working conditions in England and Wales

View project
Two teenage male pupils study a science lesson as part of their post-16 options
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Post-16 pathways: the role of peers, family background and expectations

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Exploring the impact of curriculum policy on choice, attainment and destinations

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2022

The SWAN game-based approach to learning foundational number language

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2020

Education priorities in a forthcoming general election

View project
man reading picture book to baby
New

Education | 2019 - 2022

Do infants learn new words from educational picture books?

View project
In progress

Education | 2019 - 2021

Family Nurse Partnership: what works in England and Germany

View project
Maths resit students taking exam
Reported

Education | 2019 - 2020

A new mathematics GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2018

GCSE and A-level results day project

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2019

Developing a sustainable intervention for disadvantaged children

View project
Reported

Education | 2017 - 2018

Growing up digital

View project
Reported

Education | Welfare | 2017 - 2019

Undermatch in higher education: prevalence, drivers and outcomes

View project
Reported

Education | 2017 - 2018

The effect of retention and turnover on the teaching workforce

View project
Reported

Education | 2016 - 2019

A systematic review of the impact of parent-child reading

View project
Reported

Education | 2016 - 2017

School choice and equality of opportunity

View project
Reported

Education | 2016 - 2019

A follow up survey of break and lunch times in schools

View project
Reported

Education | 2016 - 2018

Modern Foreign Languages, phonics and reading strategies

View project
Reported

Education | 2016 - 2019

Cognitive and educational foundations of preschool mathematics

View project
Reported

Education | 2016 - 2018

The importance of parental beliefs in parental investment decisions

View project
Search projects

We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

Profile