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July 11, 2023

WPI researcher receives $668K to study visual cues in math learning

Photo | Courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester Polytechnic Institute Associate Professor of Psychology and Learning Sciences Erin Ottmar

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Professor Erin Ottmar received a $667,617 grant to launch a three-year study of how visual cues can be used to improve algebra learning.

Ottmar, along with collaborators in Virginia and Indiana, expects to recruit 1,800 students in Virginia and Georgia for the study, according to a Tuesday press release from WPI.

The research deals with using visual clues like color or spacing within an equation to help students follow the proper order of operations in an equation, which Ottmar says is a pitfall for math learners.

The order of operations is burned into many people’s minds with the mnemonic device “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” parenthesis, exponents, then multiplication and division, finally addition and subtraction. Ottmar’s research aims to make the order more directly apparent.

“When students look at a math equation, they see numbers and symbols in space,” said Ottmar, “Our idea is that by using a colored font and spacing around groups of numbers in both helpful and unhelpful ways, we can help students recognize and think about correct or incorrect ways to solve an equation.”

Ottmar is also studying how artificial intelligence tools can help educators identify what difficulties students are having while learning algebra and was one of the principal investigators in developing a platform for math learning games called the Wearable Learning Cloud Platform.

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