Guessing the answer isn’t always a bad thing

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Spring blizzard with trees
Can you quickly estimate the number of trees in this photo?

Usually, guessing is considered a bad thing. If you do it on a test, there’s only a small chance of picking the right answer, but a HUGE chance of choosing the wrong one. Not all guessing is wrong, though, especially when it comes to estimating. According to Duke University, “guesstimating” can actually improve your math abilities!

I know, I know, it seems backwards right? Shouldn’t guessing on math problems be a bad thing? Maybe hearing about the study will put it into perspective for you. The researchers took a group of 26 people and gave them a math test, just to see how good they were. After the tests were graded, the participants were put in front of a computer screen to practice adding and subtracting dots. The volunteers couldn’t count the dots one by one, so they had to estimate the sum of the groups. After ten sessions each, they were given another math test. Guess what happened? The volunteers did much better on the test than they did before!

Just to be sure it was the dot training that helped, the researchers ran a second study and divided the 26 people into three groups. One group continued the dot training, while another did real math problems. The last group didn’t even do anything related to math. Instead they took a test that had questions like “What is the capital of France?” and “Who was the 1st President of the United States of America?” I wonder if you can answer those questions! Anyways, when the researchers gave all of the groups another math test, the group that trained with the dots did much better than everyone else!

“We think [estimating] might be the seeds – the building blocks – of mathematical thinking,” said Duke psychologist Elizabeth Brannon.

This doesn’t mean you should go guessing on every math problem on your homework, but if you’re at a grocery store with your mom, try to guess which line has more people in it! It may just be the answer to an “A+” on that next math test!

Images courtesy of Mike Hiatt on Flickr.