Now, more than ever, the ability to acquire mathematical skills efficiently is critical for academic and professional success, yet little is known about the behavioral and neural mechanisms that drive some children to acquire these skills faster than others. Here we investigate the behavioral and neural predictors of individual differences in arithmetic skill acquisition in response to 8-wk of one-to-one math tutoring. Twenty-four children in grade 3 (ages 8-9 y), a critical period for acquisition of basic mathematical skills, underwent structural and resting-state functional MRI scans pretutoring. A significant shift in arithmetic problem-solving strategies from counting to fact retrieval was observed with tutoring. Notably, the speed and accuracy of arithmetic problem solving increased with tutoring, with some children improving significantly more than others. Next, we examined whether pretutoring behavioral and brain measures could predict individual differences in arithmetic performance improvements with tutoring. No behavioral measures, including intelligence quotient, working memory, or mathematical abilities, predicted performance improvements. In contrast, pretutoring hippocampal volume predicted performance improvements. Furthermore, pretutoring intrinsic functional connectivity of the hippocampus with dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices and the basal ganglia also predicted performance improvements. Our findings provide evidence that individual differences in morphometry and connectivity of brain regions associated with learning and memory, and not regions typically involved in arithmetic processing, are strong predictors of responsiveness to math tutoring in children. More generally, our study suggests that quantitative measures of brain structure and intrinsic brain organization can provide a more sensitive marker of skill acquisition than behavioral measures.
Keywords: educational neuroscience; intervention; math learning; multimodal neuroimaging; prediction.