Learning Mathematics in a Visuospatial Format: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mental Abacus Instruction

Child Dev. 2016 Jul;87(4):1146-58. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12515. Epub 2016 Apr 8.


Mental abacus (MA) is a technique of performing fast, accurate arithmetic using a mental image of an abacus; experts exhibit astonishing calculation abilities. Over 3 years, 204 elementary school students (age range at outset: 5-7 years old) participated in a randomized, controlled trial to test whether MA expertise (a) can be acquired in standard classroom settings, (b) improves students' mathematical abilities (beyond standard math curricula), and (c) is related to changes in basic cognitive capacities like working memory. MA students outperformed controls on arithmetic tasks, suggesting that MA expertise can be achieved by children in standard classrooms. MA training did not alter basic cognitive abilities; instead, differences in spatial working memory at the beginning of the study mediated MA learning.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mathematics / education*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Spatial Memory / physiology*
  • Teaching