"We wanted to know how basic intuitions about numbers relate to mathematics development," said psychology professor Daniel Hyde at University of Illinois, who conducted the study with Saeeda Khanum of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University.

"We also wanted to know whether thinking intuitively about numbers, such as approximating and comparing sets without counting, helps in actually doing maths," they added.

To test this, the researchers asked first-graders to practice tasks that required them to approximate, or roughly evaluate the number of objects in a set without counting them.

Other children did tasks such as comparing the brightness of two objects or adding the lengths of lines.

Children who practised evaluating the number of objects performed better on arithmetic tests immediately afterward than did their counterparts who evaluated other qualities of objects, Hyde said."These results showed that brief practice with tasks requiring children to guess or intuit the number of objects actually improved their arithmetic test performance," he said.

The results of the study appeared in journal Cognition.

The researchers also varied the difficulty of the arithmetic tests to see if the benefits of practicing intuitive judgments about the number of objects enhanced the children's speed or accuracy, or both.

"For easier problems, where all children are very accurate, those who practised engaging what we call their 'intuitive sense of number' performed roughly 25 percent faster than children practicing a control task," Hyde said.


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