Are we barking up the wrong tree? The relation between inhibitory abilities and mathematical achievement

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


An important aspect of executive functioning (EF) is inhibition. Itrefers to the efficiency with which we maintain focus on a task without being distracted by irrelevant information or prepotent patterns of behaviour. Although a large number of studies have found mathematical performance to be associated with aspects of EF, fewer studies have examined their relation when different domains of EF are considered together. This is important because the various domain (inhibition, updating, and switching) are known to be interrelated, both conceptually and at the measurement level. In a recent review, Bull and Lee (2014) found relations between inhibitory abilities and mathematics performance to be weak and inconsistent. This is surprising as inability to resist external distraction or intruding thoughts should more likely result in task failure. A potential explanation for the weaker than expected relation is the use of subtraction scores in gauging inhibitory abilities. As Lord (1956) pointed out, internal reliability is typically low with subtraction measures. To examine whether findings from alternative measurement or analytic strategies methods differ, I will present findings from correlational analyses using residual scores, path analyses, and measures segmented by reaction time. With few exceptions, they produced non-significant relations even when different criterion measures of mathematical performance were used. I will present arguments that the poorer than expected association is due to (a) age-related differences in the structure of executive functioning, (b) a mismatch in the way in which inhibition and mathematical performance are measured, (c) the sensitivity of inhibitory tasks commonly used in the literature, and (d) variation in the amount of inhibitory demands imposed by different mathematical tasks. Copyright © 2018 The 1st Mathematical Cognition and Learning Society Conference.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018



Lee, K. (2018, April). Are we barking up the wrong tree? The relation between inhibitory abilities and mathematical achievement. Paper presented at The 1st Mathematical Cognition and Learning Society Conference, Examination schools, Oxford, UK.