Why do Asians outperform non-Asians in math? A new study suggests Asians do better because they have memorized more basic math and relied less on calculators in elementary and high school.
Dr. Jamie Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Saskatchewan, compared the basic mathematical skills of 72 university students divided into three groups: students educated in China, Canadian students of Chinese origin and non-Asian Canadian students.
His research, to be published in a future edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, confirmed the findings of previous studies of younger students.
Asian students do better in math than non-Asian students.
In the first part of Dr. Campbell's experiment, the three groups of students were asked to perform rudimentary mathematical calculations in their heads. The questions were similar to those on elementary-school flash cards: Five plus three. Seven times nine. Fifteen divided by three.
The non-Asians were about 25-per-cent slower in producing an answer.
When asked how they had arrived at their solutions, Asians said they relied on their memories to give them a quick answer. The non-Asians were more likely to count, or to use their knowledge of a related problem.
"You might get six plus seven, and you consult your memory and the answer is not there. But you know six plus six, so then you go six plus six plus one. That is considered a less mature strategy for doing arithmetic, one that is used by kids when they are first learning," Dr. Campbell says.
"On average the two Asian groups used their memories about 85 per cent of the time, and the non-Asians used retrieval about 70 per cent."
Dr. Campbell and his graduate student, Xilin Xue, also administered a test of more complex problems, for example, three plus 12 plus 13.
These were multistep questions where students needed to keep the answer to the intermediate step in their memories, Dr. Campbell says.
"In contrast to the simple arithmetic, now the Asian-educated Chinese are better than both the Canadian groups."
The Asian students educated in China provided 58 per cent more correct answers than the Canadian-educated students.
The Canadian students of Asian origin scored 19 per cent higher than non-Asians.
Previous studies have suggested that the differences in performance in math are mainly motivational. Children of Asian origin are more likely to be expected by their families and peers to meet high standards, pursue extracurricular instruction or practice, and have positive attitudes about achievement.
"I think that is particularly true in families where the parents came from China or Hong Kong," says Fern Chan, a Toronto mother whose three children do well in math.
Dr. Campbell's experiment found that both use of memory and previous reliance on a calculator may affect basic math skills. He found that the students educated in China, who didn't use calculators in elementary or secondary school, did better on the more complex mathematical test than the students educated in Canada. Canadian students said they had used calculators more often in class before they reached university.
"It is partially an explanation for why there was a difference on the complex arithmetic," Dr. Campbell says.
Looking at differences in race and intellectual performance is a touchy area in science, and Dr. Campbell says his study explicitly rejects a difference in intelligence to explain why Asians do better than non-Asians in math.
Other studies that compared younger Asian and non-Asian students found the only difference in their school performance is in math class.
His experiment, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, is the first to examine if those differences continue after the students grow up and go to university.
He notes that there is no difference in the mathematical ability between much older North Americans and Asians.
"That is another argument for why it is not genetic."
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