Shifting, or cognitive flexibility, is the component of executive functions which allows us to implement different behaviors based on the change of rules or the type of task. Some authors argue how flexibility is particularly important in complex activities such as, for example, those that require taking on different aspects of the problems or using different calculation strategies.

However, it is not easy to establish the link between cognitive flexibility and mathematical skills, especially considering that tests evaluating cognitive flexibility:

  • are different in setting (some, like the Trail Making Test, have an explicit rule, while others like the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test require that you find the rule)
  • have scores (which may relate to reaction times, accuracy or efficiency) calculated differently

Furthermore, often, the studies are not sufficiently stratified by age, socioeconomic status and other factors that could play a key role.

In a 2012 metanalysis, Yeniad and colleagues [1] analyzed 18 studies relating to the relationship between flexibility and mathematical ability, identifying, in each of them, the characteristics of the sample (age, gender, socio-economic status) and the type of score. and rules used in tests.

The results of the study showed that:

  • there is a significant relationship between cognitive flexibility and mathematical (and reading) skills
  • the association between cognitive flexibility and school success is not affected the type of rule applied in the test, the type of scores used, the age of the children, gender, level of schooling and socio-economic status.

Unfortunately, due to the low number of studies, it was not possible for the authors to separate the association between cognitive flexibility and school success from the general cognitive level.

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The group, in fact, highlights that, analyzing the data from some articles selected at the beginning of the meta-analysis, the relationship between intelligence and mathematical (and reading) skills seems to be stronger of that between cognitive flexibility and academic results. Therefore, it remains to be clarified what the role of cognitive flexibility is, net of the general cognitive level.

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mathematical executive functions