Cognition and Student Learning Education Research

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Northwestern University Project Abstract
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Principal Investigator: David Uttal
Co-Principal Investigator: Judy DeLoache (University of Virginia)
Title: Understanding and Fostering Symbolic Development

Purpose: The ability to understand letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols is critically important to learning in school. To facilitate the learning of education symbol systems and mathematics, teachers and parents often encourage children to play with a variety of concrete symbolic objects, commonly called manipulatives. It is generally assumed that these objects facilitate learning by helping children to understand concepts before they can understand abstract, symbolic representations. However, this assumption has never been adequately tested, and there are theoretical reasons to believe that merely interacting with an object that is intended to be a symbol may actually be counterproductive.

This research team will develop and test interventions designed to help parents and teachers use symbolic objects, such as manipulatives, more effectively.

Setting: Three elementary schools in the Chicago area are participating. Participating preschool children also live in the greater Chicago area.

Population: The participants include 4-year-olds, second-graders, and fourth-graders. Participating children are ethnically and economically diverse. The second- and fourth-grade students attend one of three elementary schools: One serves a population that is 97 percent African-American; one serves a population that is very diverse with approximately equal numbers of white, Hispanic, and Asian-American children; and a third serves a population that is approximately 85 percent white.

Intervention: Two types of interventions are being developed. The first is designed to facilitate 4-year-olds’ understanding of the symbolic properties of letters and numbers through simple games using magnetic letters and numbers that parents can play with their child. The second intervention takes place in elementary schools. Teachers will implement instructional methods designed to help children link what they learn with mathematics manipulatives to written versions of the same kind of problems.

Research Design and Methods: The research team is conducting experiments that focus on children’s understanding of letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols and the influences of interacting with concrete symbolic objects on this understanding. The researchers use pre-test and post-test designs, and include control groups to ensure that observed improvements are attributable to the newly developed interventions.

Control Condition: Some of the studies rely on a within-subject design, and in those cases, children serve as their own control. In other experiments, children are randomly assigned to control conditions where they complete the same tasks as the experimental children but without the use of concrete symbolic objects.

Key Measures: A variety of assessments of number and letter knowledge are being used. They include standardized tests, such as the Test of Early Mathematics Ability (TEMA 3); relevant subscales of the Woodcock-Johnson tests; and simple experimenter-developed measures, such as tests of letter and number recognition and counting.

Data Analytic Strategy: Differences between experimental and control groups are being evaluated using analysis of variance techniques.

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Last Modified: 11/08/2005