KQED: In Teaching Algebra, the Not-So-Secret Way to Students’ Hearts

Journalist Katrina Schwartz with California Public Media station KQED reported on the research of SMU Assistant Professor Candace Walkington, who authored a year-long study of 141 ninth graders at a Pennsylvania high school and found that students whose algebra curriculum was personalized to their interests mastered the concepts faster than those students whose learning wasn’t personalized.

The article, “In Teaching Algebra, the Not-So-Secret Way to Students’ Hearts,” was published Dec. 9.

Walkington teaches in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the SMU Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education & Human Development. Her research examines how abstract mathematical ideas can become connected to students’ concrete, everyday experiences such that the concepts are better understood. Walkington conducts research on “personalizing” mathematics instruction to students’ out of-school interests in areas like sports, music, shopping and video games. She also examines ways to connect mathematical practices with physical motions including gestures. Her work draws upon theories of situated and embodied cognition, and she is an active member of the learning sciences community. Her research uses both qualitative methods like discourse and gesture analysis, and quantitative methods like hierarchical linear modeling and educational data mining.

Read the article.

EXCERPT:

Katrina Schwartz
KQED

Education researchers are beginning to validate what many teachers have long known — connecting learning to student interests helps the information stick. This seems to work particularly well with math, a subject many students say they dislike because they can’t see its relevance to their lives.

“When I started spending time in classrooms I realized the math wasn’t being applied to the students’ world in a meaningful way,” said Candace Walkington, assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. She conducted a year-long study on 141 ninth graders at a Pennsylvania high school to see whether tailoring questions to individual student interests could help students learn difficult and often abstract algebra concepts.

Researchers studied a classroom using Carnegie Learning software called Cognitive Tutor, a program that has been studied frequently. In the study, half of the students chose one of several categories that interested them — things like music, movies, sports, social media — and were given an algebra curriculum based on those topics. The other half received no interest-based personalization. All the problems had the same underlying structure and were meant to teach the same concept.

Walkington found that students who had received interest-based personalization mastered concepts faster. What’s more, in order to ensure that learning was robust, retained over time, and would accelerate future learning, she also looked at student performance in a later unit that had no interest-based personalization for any of the students. “Students that had previously received personalization, even though it was gone, were doing better on these more difficult problems as well,” said Walkington.

She also found that struggling students improved the most when their interests were taken into account. “We picked out the students who seemed to be struggling the most in Algebra I and we found that for this sub-group of students that were way behind the personalization was more effective,” Walkington said. Specifically, the study tested students’ ability to turn story problems into algebraic equations — what’s called algebraic expression writing.

“That’s one of the most challenging skills to teach students because it’s a very abstract skill,” Walkington said. She hypothesizes that the abstract nature of the concepts actually allowed students to more easily generalize and apply the same knowledge to a wide variety of situations and to more difficult problems in later units.

Walkington is working to expand her study to all the ninth graders in a school district of 9,000 students. “The bigger, you make it the harder it is to tap into the interests of students,” Walkington said. But she’s confident that there are some general-interest categories that many students share, like sports and movies.

Read the article.

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

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