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Research Spotlight on Middle School Math Understanding

Collaborative Research: Enhancing Middle Grades Students’ Capacity to Develop and Communicate Their Mathematical Understanding of Big Ideas Using Digital Inscriptional Resources is one of the newest mathematics education research projects at MSU.

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research PreK-12 (DRK-12) program, has a primary goal of helping middle school students deepen and communicate their understanding of mathematics. Funding just shy of $3 million was awarded to Elizabeth Phillips, Alden Edson, Joseph Krajcik, and Kristen Bieda of MSU, along with collaborator Chad Dorsey of the Concord Consortium. Graduate students from PRIME at Michigan State University who are involved in this project include David Bowers, Taren Going, and Amit Sharma. The award will be used to facilitate the project from September 2016 to August 2020. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

Photos of Researchers: Phillips, Edson, Krajcik, Bieda, and Dorsey

The project will develop and test a digital platform for middle school mathematics classrooms. The digital platform will allow students to collaboratively create representations of their mathematics thinking, incorporate ideas from other students, and share their work with the class. The digital learning environment makes use of a problem-centered mathematics curriculum that evolved from extensive development, field-testing and evaluation, and is widely used in middle schools. The research will also contribute to understanding about the design and innovative use of digital resources and collaboration in classrooms as an increasing number of schools are drawing on these kinds of tools.

The project will support students to collaboratively construct, manipulate, and interpret their shared representations of mathematics using digital inscriptional resources. The research activities will enhance the understanding of student learning in mathematics in three important ways. The project team will report on how (1) evidence of student thinking is made visible through the use of digital inscriptional resources, (2) student inscriptions are registered, talked about, and manipulated in collaborative settings, and (3) students’ conceptual growth of big mathematical ideas grows over time. In addition, the digital inscriptional resources developed in the project will be freely available online for researchers and schools.

An iterative design research process will incorporate four phases of development, testing and revision, and will be conducted to study student use of the digital learning space and related inscriptional resources. Data sources will include: classroom observations and artifacts, student and teacher interviews and surveys, student assessment data, and analytics from the digital platform. The findings of this study will serve as a guide for future research and development efforts directed at supporting middle school students in collaboratively constructing, manipulating, and interpreting their shared representations of mathematics. More importantly, it will provide new knowledge for the field on how to support students in using inscriptions in collaborative settings and how to track conceptual growth of big mathematical ideas over time. The process will include close collaboration with teachers to understand the implementation and create revisions to the resources.


Written by

Claudia Salwin