CAREER: Leveraging Contrasting Cases to Investigate Integer Understanding

Most students learn about negative numbers long after they have learned about positive numbers, and they have little time or opportunity to build on their prior understanding by contrasting the two concepts. The purpose of this CAREER project is to identify language factors and instructional sequences that contribute to improving elementary students' understanding of addition and subtraction problems involving negative integers. 

Full Description: 

Currently, most students learn about negative numbers long after they have learned about positive numbers, and they have little time or opportunity to build on their prior understanding by contrasting the two concepts. Therefore, they struggle to make sense of negative integer concepts, which appear to conflict with their current understanding. The purpose of this CAREER project is to identify language factors and instructional sequences that contribute to improving elementary students' understanding of addition and subtraction problems involving negative integers. A second objective is to identify how elementary teachers interpret their students' integer understanding and use research findings to support their teaching of these concepts. This project is expected to contribute to theories regarding the development of integer understanding as well as what makes a useful contrasting case when learning new, related concepts. Moreover, the results of this project can contribute to our understanding of how to build on students? prior number knowledge rather than contradict it.

The principal investigator will conduct a series of four experimental studies involving a preparation for learning component with students randomly assigned to treatment or control groups. Study 1 will involve second and fourth graders and will test the language factors that support students' understanding of integers. Studies 2-4 will involve second and fifth graders and will test the optimal order in which integer addition and subtraction problems are presented in contrast with each other versus sequentially without contrasts. Using items that measure students? understanding of integers and integer operations, the PI will compare students' gains from pre-tests to post-tests between groups. Further, the investigator will qualitatively code students? solution strategies based on follow-up interviews and written work for additional information on the differences between groups. Following the experimental studies, the PI will work with elementary teachers over three lesson study cycles, during which teachers will implement instruction based on the prior studies? results. The PI will compare the performance of students who participate in the lesson study unit versus control classrooms to measure impact of the unit.

Videos of the lesson study unit, as well as the negative integer lesson plans will be made available for other teachers and teacher educators to use. Further, the investigator will incorporate the research results into an undergraduate mathematics methods course. To ensure that the results of this research reach a wider audience, the investigator will create an integer game and storybook, illustrating key concepts identified through the research, that parents can explore together with their children during family math nights and at home. On a broader scale, this project has the potential to illuminate ways to develop more coherence in the sequencing of mathematics topics to more effectively build on students? current understanding.