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Research adds up to better-prepared mathematics teachers

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New research taking place at the University of Georgia College of Education examines how future mathematics teachers can develop flexible methods for solving problems in middle grades mathematics.

Funded by a four-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project, "Investigating Proportional Relationships from Two Perspectives," investigates how future mathematics teachers make connections among multiplication and division, fractions, ratios and proportional relationships, linear functions and statistical samples.

By learning to solve mathematical problems in multiple ways, said Andrew Izsák, the grants principal investigator, future teachers gain deeper knowledge of content they teach and the flexibility to help diverse students learn mathematics. The project will look at ways the UGA students' understanding of certain concepts, such as ratios and proportional relationships, can build upon their understanding of multiplication and division. This "interconnected" knowledge can help both teachers and students remember what they learn.

"We're focusing on teacher cognition, and avenues for them to learn the content in ways that are successful for teaching," said Izsák, a professor in the College of Education's Department of Mathematics and Science Education. "It's this kind of instructional approach that makes mathematics seem reasonable. You're starting with things that make sense to students."

This method also helps meet the ambitious goals set by mathematics curriculum standards for middle schools in the past 25 years. "Strengthening middle school mathematics education is as urgent as any challenge facing STEM education in the United States," said Izsák. "Weak conceptual understanding of middle grades mathematics has been identified as a critical obstacle to students' readiness for college, especially community colleges."

The research team includes Sybilla Beckmann, a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics, and Laine Bradshaw, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology with expertise in psychometrics (statistics for assessment). Through a series of interviews with College of Education students, the researchers will learn how pre-service teachers deepen their understanding of content they will teach. Some of the information gathered related to teacher reasoning and learning will be used in future editions of Beckmann's textbook, "Mathematics for Elementary Teachers," which is used in teacher education courses around the nation.

The project is funded under grant number DRL-1420307 and is part of the National Science Foundation's Research on Education and Learning program. It builds on previous grants that helped develop an assessment of the knowledge of fractions.

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