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Researchers study how children learn math concepts

Calculator and math textbook

Researchers at Illinois State University and the University of Denver are working to better understand how children learn spatial measurement concepts in mathematics and science. (Creative Commons photo from Flickr user jonoakley)

Researchers at Illinois State University and the University of Denver are working to better understand how children learn spatial measurement concepts in mathematics and science.

The study results will be used to further develop national standards for mathematics education and to improve professional development work with teachers. Illinois State researchers have received $1 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the first two years of the four-year project.

The grant-funded research will enhance knowledge of students’ mathematics learning trajectories; the steps that children go through to learn mathematics concepts such as measuring area or volume. An enhanced understanding of how children learn those measurement concepts at different ages will help to refine the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, a set of recently released national standards for mathematics instruction and assessment.

Jeff Barrett, a professor in Illinois State’s Department of Mathematics and associate director of the Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology (CeMaST), is the lead researcher on the project. Barrett is joined by his departmental colleague, Illinois State Assistant Professor Craig Cullen, and Julie Sarama and Douglas Clements, faculty members at the University of Denver.

A major part of their research will examine how junior high age students learn the mathematics concepts that will prepare them for high school coursework. The project is also a continuation of previous research by Barrett and his University of Denver colleagues on how students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade learn measurement concepts. That data will be used to clarify and strengthen recommendations for new standards, curriculum and assessments for mathematics education.

The researchers are working with junior high school teachers and students in Peoria and Denver, Colo. to track student learning patterns over a three-year period. Barrett and the other researchers believe that sharing their findings on learning trajectories with the teachers involved in the project will result in classroom instruction methods that better serve student needs.

“Through this project, we’re hoping to get a kid’s eye view of mathematics concepts,” said Barrett. “We want to better understand the different thought processes and learning patterns that kids have. That will help us make research-based recommendations on ways to better teach those mathematics concepts.”