The Interaction of Procedural Skill, Conceptual Understanding and Working Memory in Early Mathematics Achievement

Camilla Gilmore, Sarah Keeble, Sophie Richardson, Lucy Cragg


Large individual differences in children’s mathematics achievement are observed from the start of schooling. Previous research has identified three cognitive skills that are independent predictors of mathematics achievement: procedural skill, conceptual understanding and working memory. However, most studies have only tested independent effects of these factors and failed to consider moderating effects. We explored the procedural skill, conceptual understanding and working memory capacity of 75 children aged 5 to 6 years as well as their overall mathematical achievement. We found that, not only were all three skills independently associated with mathematics achievement, but there was also a significant interaction between them. We found that levels of conceptual understanding and working memory moderated the relationship between procedural skill and mathematics achievement such that there was a greater benefit of good procedural skill when associated with good conceptual understanding and working memory. Cluster analysis also revealed that children with equivalent levels of overall mathematical achievement had differing strengths and weaknesses across these skills. This highlights the importance of considering children’s skill profile, rather than simply their overall achievement.


mathematics education; mathematical cognition; working memory; conceptual understanding; procedural skill

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Copyright (c) 2017 Gilmore; Keeble; Richardson; Cragg