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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Academics & Research

Professor researches age-old question: Why do students struggle in math?

UH associate professor of psychology Paul Cirino is researching why students struggle with math. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

College math courses are notorious for being incredibly difficult for the unprepared, and many students did not learn the necessary material in high school. They may even suffer from a math disability for a variety of reasons.

UH associate professor of psychology Paul Cirino was awarded a $2.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation to research college-level remedial math students in an attempt to understand where this math disability could come from.

“There’s a bunch of different things that go into how you do in math,” Cirino said. “Some of these are based on your history — how many math courses have you taken? Which math courses have you taken? How was your educational experience? Did you have good teachers?”

Most of the data that has been collected about math disabilities comes from elementary school students, Cirino said. There has been a push to study older students over the last decade or so, but there is still little known about math difficulties in college students, he said.

In addition to a student’s educational history, their cognitive ability is also a factor of their ability to do well in math, Cirino said. Recollection, concentration and language aptitude are all parts of general cognitive ability, he said.

“The third group of things that go into math are the way we feel about it,” Cirino said. “‘I don’t like math,’ or ‘I’m afraid of math,’ or ‘I’m anxious about math’ or ‘I don’t care.’ Those kinds of things make a big difference.”

Cirino and his research partners are going to measure each of these categories in their sample group. They will measure which of them make the most difference or find out if they are of equal importance to math success, he said.

“Once we know the kinds of things that go into what accounts for math performance,” Cirino said, “then we’ll be in a better position to try and do something about it, whether it’s increasing your motivation or building your basic skills — whatever it is.”

Cirino is working with UH professor of computer science Ioannis Pavlidis, among others, to perform this study. Cirino will use Pavlidis’ lab to test students and measure things like their heart rates, perspiration and other indicators of how a person is feeling while solving math problems.

The study will include about 1,000 Houston Community College students and 100-150 UH students, Cirino said. Recruitment for the study will begin around January.

Cirino is partnering with HCC for the study due to its high number of students who require a remedial math class before they can begin working on their major requirements.

“Because you have to take developmental coursework, it means you don’t have skills that you were supposed to learn in high school, and yet you’ve graduated from high school. It’s kind of difficult to wrap your head around,” Cirino said.

Cirino also pointed out that many math adequacy tests are similar across age groups, so it doesn’t provide a good indicator of where more advanced students actually are in their education.

“Most of our tasks by which we say ‘You have good math skills,’ or ‘You have not so good math skills’ are designed much more generally,” Cirino said. “The same tests that we use to assess a third grader are the same thing that we use for high school and are the same thing we use for an adult.”

One would expect upper-level math courses to be more strenuous. However, a significant number of students struggle with lower-level math courses.

Computer information systems freshman Alice Ho said she struggles in her 1330 pre-calculus course, which proves problematic since math is one of the building blocks necessary for her to succeed in her career field, she said.

Ho entered college with a good background in math due to exceptional high school math teachers. This goes to show that students may still struggle with math despite having the basic skills required to succeed.

“There is a lot of information to memorize, and it’s difficult for me to recognize when I need to use a specific identity or formula,” Ho said. “The class is mostly difficult because of the memorization factor and how it seems to be more concept-based than anything.”

Although students with a well-developed background in math may struggle with these lower-level courses, Ho firmly believes it is these foundations that have the biggest impact on one’s ability to succeed. Without having taken algebra in previous years, it would be extremely difficult to excel in a pre-calculus course, Ho said.

Andrew Hamilton, the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics associate dean of student success, runs a class for students who are on academic warning, usually freshmen who had a bad first semester. He said almost all of his students either didn’t take calculus or took the class and failed.

“It’s the combination of an inability to focus on the course, either because of mental illness or because it takes more time than they anticipated, and then partly it’s that they didn’t know that they weren’t prepared,” Hamilton said. “And then they all cheated on the placement test.”

Hamilton and NSM recently instituted a new placement test to combat the problem of cheating since success in calculus, especially early on, has been statistically indicated to predict whether a student will receive a degree that requires it.

“What has happened for years is that students take an online, unproctored test that they cheat on. We know this because we can see what they’ve done,” Hamilton said. “They can increase their score by 30 percentage points in an hour, which means they didn’t go learn all of pre-cal in an hour, did they?”

Now students take a pre-test before orientation that gives them a topical breakdown of where they’re struggling and then take a proctored test during orientation, Hamilton said. There are modules offered that students can use to study up on subjects they’re having trouble with in addition to math boot camps on campus and online.

“Students are given multiple attempts at the proctored test, so if you came and took the proctored test and failed it, we said ‘Look, go do the modules and get ready,’” Hamilton said. “We want you in Cal I. I’m not trying to keep you out of that class, but I don’t want you to be in there if you’re not ready, ’cause then you’re going to drop it or fail it.”

Since it is the first year this program has been instituted, there aren’t yet any data on student grades in calculus. Hamilton said they do have enrollment patterns that show many more students are taking pre-cal this year compared to previous years.

“Once we understand the combinations of factors that create a math learning disability, we can identify who may be more likely to struggle and by uncovering the nature of that difficulty,” said Cirino in a UH press release, “we can begin to make inroads into how we can meet that need.”

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