Education Research Enhances Math Teaching 

This summer, several student-faculty teams spent time tackling research projects in the arts and sciences—from asthma to accounting audits, bilingualism and women in leadership. Some were funded through the Provost’s Summer Research Fellowships, and others were individual projects. Over the last several weeks, we’ve been covering the teams’ progress as they seek to answer complex questions in their fields.

How did your parents encourage you in math as a child? Did they emphasize math as an important area of study, or were other subjects prioritized? Those are questions that Dr. Melinda Eichhorn (education) and Courtney Vitale ’18 spent time asking Gordon students and alumni over the summer.

Their research project primarily focused on future math teachers’ preparation for pedagogy. “Prior experiences in math shape both your current beliefs and perceptions of math, and how you teach math,” says Dr. Eichhorn.

“Attitude, confidence and appreciation for math seem to be influenced by teachers and parents,” she explains. A teacher’s background in and passion for math can best help students succeed. Therefore, “a lot of schools are departmentalizing in fourth and fifth grade” by bringing a math-specific teacher into the classroom, Vitale says.

To evaluate methods for teacher preparation, the pair studied qualities that school principals tend to seek in teachers. That includes “knowledge of common core standards and knowledge of math content, but also collaboration, and an ability to reflect and realize it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them,” Dr. Eichhorn says.

“If you don’t ever make mistakes, you’re actually not learning,” she adds. Learning from mistakes is a “classroom environment that we want to model.”

To that end, the team is studying a concept developed by Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, who has written about two distinct learning mindsets.

One is “a fixed mindset. You believe that you are one way: ‘I’m a math-minded person and not a reading-minded person, so I can’t learn to write better,’” Dr Eichhorn explains. The other is a growth mindset: “You can continue to learn and grow in one subject. You’re able to improve in math, science, social studies” and other subjects, regardless of which feels most natural.

Although people show attributes of both mindsets, Vitale says that in the past 10 years, most schools increasingly encourage the growth mindset. It “is going to help you overcome when things get hard,” Dr. Eichhorn explains.

In addition to emphasis on the growth mindset, there’s been a shift from procedural to conceptual knowledge in teaching—rather than plugging in formulas to get an answer, you delve into a longer process of understanding the why and how behind the answer.

“When you think about research, typically people don’t think about education,” Vitale says. But good research is the tool that provides new educational methods and evaluates old ones. “All of our practice should be evidence-based and steeped in research,” Dr. Eichhorn says.

Courtney and Dr. Eichhorn agree: “it’s been a great experience to work together and go deeper than we’ve been able to go in class.”

Read about Dr. Angie Cornwell (biology) and Courtney Olbrich ’19 >>
Read about Dr. Jonathan Gerber (psychology) and Hannah Reimel ’17 >>
Read about Dr. Kaye Cook (psychology), Taylor-Marie Funchion ’18 and Si-Hua Chang ’16 >>
Read about Dr. Karl-Dieter Crisman (math), Min-Sun Kim ’17 and Luke Cui ’18 >>

By Morgan Clayton ’19, history