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A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

15415-symmetry_newsMany people grow up thinking of themselves as “not very good at math” after having struggled to learn abstract math concepts. Sometimes people hit their “math wall”— the point where math classes feel so complex that the subject becomes impossible to understand — in college, high school, or even earlier.

A team at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, led by Daniel Schwartz, PhD, might help young students avoid the math wall altogether. The researchers are using recent findings from neuroscience to explore how people learn core concepts in math and science. They recently published a study in the scientific journal Cognition and Instruction looking at how fourth-grade students learn about negative numbers and building on previous findings about our ability to process visual symmetry.

One of the new tools used in the study is described in a Stanford News article:

Students worked with a magnetic plastic strip that was numbered. To solve the problem 3 + -2, students attached three magnetized blocks to the right of zero and two blocks to the left of zero. The manipulative further included a hinge at zero, the point of integer symmetry. Students folded the two sides together, and the number of extra blocks on either side gave the answer, in this case +1. The hinge at zero helped students recruit their native abilities with symmetry, and the numbers on the little platform helped them coordinate the sense of symmetry with the symbolic digits.

The students taught with these new techniques were able to solve math problems involving negative numbers better than students taught using conventional teaching approaches; they built on the strategies they learned using the hands-on device. And:

As it turned out, students who learned to rely on symmetry didn't simply do better than other students on the material they had just been taught. They also did better on topics that they hadn't yet studied, such as making sense of negative fractions and solving pre-algebraic problems.

"The big difference was that the symmetry instruction enabled students to solve novel problems and to continue learning without explicit instruction," said Schwartz.

Previously: Math and the brain: Memorization is overrated, says education expert, Building a bridge between education and neuroscience, Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds, Peering into the brain to predict kids' responses to math tutoring and New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain
Photo courtesy of AAALab@Stanford

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