Algebraic Learning and Cognition in Learning Disabled Students

The project is a longitudinal assessment of the prerequisite (e.g. fractions), cognitive (e.g. working memory), and non-cognitive (e.g. math anxiety) factors that dynamically influence 7-9th grade students' algebraic learning and cognition, with a focus on students with learning disabilities in mathematics. The study will provide the most comprehensive assessment of the development of algebra competence ever conducted and is organized by an integrative model of cognitive and non-cognitive influences on students' engagement in math classrooms and on the learning of procedural and spatial-related aspects of algebra.

Project Email: 
Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
1659133
Funding Period: 
Tuesday, August 15, 2017 to Saturday, July 31, 2021
Project Evaluator: 
Full Description: 

High school algebra is the gateway to a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and can influence employability and wages in many non-STEM occupations. Students who struggle with or fail high school algebra have compromised occupational prospects, and nations that do not produce mathematically competent citizens may compromise their economic growth. Much is known about the factors that contribute to students' difficulties with arithmetic learning and interventions are being developed to address these difficulties. Little is known, however, about why some students struggle with algebra. Accordingly, the project will follow at risk students (including for example, those with dyslexia) from 7th grade through high school algebra and assess their prerequisite knowledge (e.g. fractions skills), cognitive systems (e.g., memory), attitudes and reactions to mathematics (e.g. math anxiety) and their attentiveness in math classrooms. The comprehensive evaluation of these students will allow us to identify the factors that influence difficulties in learning different aspects of algebra and risk of failing algebra more generally. The results will provide unique scientific insights into the cognitive and motivational influences on students' understanding and learning of algebra and identify areas for intervention with at-risk students. The results will also be used to develop a screening measure for the early identification of at-risk students and to identify specific areas for targeted intervention. The measure will be made freely available to interested school districts throughout the United States.

The project is a 7th to 9th grade longitudinal assessment of the prerequisite (e.g. fractions), cognitive (e.g. working memory), and non-cognitive (e.g. math anxiety) factors that dynamically influence students' algebraic learning and cognition, with a focus on students with learning disabilities in mathematics. The study will provide the most comprehensive assessment of the development of algebra competence ever conducted and is organized by an integrative model of cognitive and non-cognitive influences on students' engagement in math classrooms and on the learning of procedural and spatial-related aspects of algebra. The focus on students at risk for failing high school algebra is informed by research on the number and arithmetic deficits of these students, providing continuity with previous work, and a strong a priori framework for assessing their most likely difficulties in learning algebra; specifically, we developed novel measures that assess different aspects of procedural algebra (e.g. memory for the structure of algebra equations) and spatial-related algebra (e.g. recognizing how common functions map to coordinate space) that will allow for the study of different types of learning deficits and a determination of how more basic cognitive abilities, such as visuospatial working memory, may underlie these deficits. Prior cognitive studies of at-risk students have largely ignored the contributions of non-cognitive factors, such as math anxiety, on their learning or how their learning difficulties change attitudes about and reactions to mathematics (e.g. increasing math anxiety). The proposed research will address this important oversight and integrate these non-cognitive factors with assessments of teacher-rated student engagement in pre-algebra and algebra classrooms (and language arts classrooms as a contrast) and how engagement in the classroom influences the learning of procedural and spatial-related algebra. The research will also provide a thorough analysis of cognitive and non-cognitive influences on algebraic learning and cognition more generally, and thus inform general educational practices. In all, the proposed research will provide a comprehensive model for the study algebraic learning and cognition generally, and will provide a comprehensive assessment of associated deficits of learning disabled students and students at risk for failing high school algebra. The research will also make available revised or newly developed cognitive measures of procedural and spatial-related algebra skills that should facilitate future cognitive science and educational studies of algebra learning.

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