Funded Grants

Developing Mathematical Skills and Motivation

Strong mathematical skills are critical for creating a well-prepared workforce and informed citizenry in an increasingly technological society. Math skills are portals to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and are crucial tools in everyday life, from financial and medical decision-making to understanding the national debt.

Unfortunately, many students fail to reach their potential in mathematics, and the roots of these disparities can be traced to school entry. Remediating these disparities requires a detailed understanding of the cognitive processes through which young children learn math concepts, why some children suffer from anxiety and low motivation, and how cognitive and motivational processes work together to influence long-term developmental trajectories.

A distinctive aspect of my research program involves the growing recognition of the importance of spatial skills, like mental rotation and proportional reasoning, for understanding variations in math achievement. Spatial skills predict interest and success in mathematics starting in pre-k and can be substantially improved at all ages. Therefore, enhancing spatial skills may represent a powerful and currently underutilized leverage point for enhancing children’s mathematical development. In both spatial and numerical domains, my research investigates individual differences in learners (e.g., numerical concepts, spatial skills, strategy use, and motivation) and in learning environments (e.g., parents, teachers, and specific learning materials) in the hope of discovering key cognitive and motivational processes that set children onto positive trajectories in mathematics.

In the coming years, I plan to investigate links between spatial and numerical development in three inter-related ways. First, I will develop a fine-grained model of the relations between specific spatial skills and specific numerical skills, and investigate whether these relations change with age. For example, the number line is an important representation that aligns spatial and numerical magnitudes and might explain relations between spatial skills and numeracy in early childhood. Second, I ask how young children develop the ability to flexibly focus on either numerical magnitudes (i.e., numbers of discrete objects) or spatial magnitudes (i.e., continuous quantities like surface area) when those magnitudes are in conflict – such as comparing 4 large stars to 10 tiny stars - and what experiences can improve this ability. Third, I will examine how parents’ cognitive and motivational support – such as spatial language, gesture, praise, and talk about ability – jointly impact children’s spatial and numerical skills, motivation, and long-term trajectories in STEM. This research program is multi-method, including correlational, longitudinal, observational, and experimental approaches; correlational and longitudinal studies inform later randomized experiments aimed at testing causal relations, and experimental studies inform observational and longitudinal research to determine whether processes established in the lab also occur in the real world.

Together, these studies will contribute to a deeper understanding of the inter-relations between spatial and numerical thinking in childhood, how parent interactions influence the development of these cognitive skills, and how cognitive and motivational factors work together to influence children’s trajectories in STEM. The long-term goal of this research is to uncover critical leverage points and translation-ready insights that can improve children’s mathematical skills and motivation.