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Published: 2023-05-02

Digital feedback supports students' problem solving in mathematics

NEWS New research shows how digital feedback can support students to overcome difficulties on their own when they're stuck during problem solving in mathematics. The computer support gives students suggestions on what to do when difficulties arise and can function as a complement to the teacher's role.

Text: Sara-Lena Brännström

Learning mathematics is not just about memorizing mathematical methods. In order to solve mathematical problems, it is also required that students partly create their own solution methods. To be able to do this, guidance is needed when difficulties arise in moving forward in problem solving process.

In her dissertation at Umeå University, Sharmin Söderström shows how the responsibility of problem-solving process can be left to the students. In order to provide guidance for supporting students during problem solving, there is a need to first diagnose what kind of problematic situation students are facing and then provide feedback accordingly.

“In this case, the feedback is not about explaining the mathematics, but about thinking further about which methods and tools can be used to continue the process. What kind of person you are and what goals you have can influence how you perceive this kind of feedback”, says Sharmin Söderström, doctoral student at the Department of Applied Educational Science and Umeå Mathematics Education Research Centre.

Tested on students

To investigate how this type of feedback works, a suitable situation was created: a number of mathematical tasks with associated support, both in digital form. The participants in the research study were 17 students who were all in their first year at university and 134 students from high school.

With the help of feedback via the computer, the participants, without access to any given solution method or ready-made templates, would come up with a way to solve the task. The students determined where they had struggled and chose the diagnosis, and feedback was designed corresponding to each diagnosis. The feedback starts at a general, metacognitive level. If that is not enough, they are presented with general strategies suggestion that are appropriate in problem-solving situations, such as drawing a picture.

Complementing the teachers role

The thesis contributes with concrete examples of how the students themselves can take responsibility for the problem-solving process. One way is to receive feedback digitally, which is not directly about the mathematics and different methods, but instead about how to analyze what makes you not progress and what general strategies and tools you can use to continue your work with solving the task.

“This does not mean that the teacher's role should be replaced with a computer environment, rather that computer support can be used as a complement. When planning lessons and choosing teaching methods, teachers may choose to include this form of feedback. This can especially be done if you want to strengthen students' own mathematical reasoning”, says Sharmin Söderström.

Sharmin Söderström was born and raised in Bangladesh, where she also took her bachelor's and master's degrees. In 2012, she moved to Norway for a M.Phil. degree. Before starting her doctoral education at Umeå University, she worked with research in Finland.

About the dissertation

On Friday May 5, Sharmin Söderström, Department of Applied Educational Science at Umeå University, will defend her thesis titled Formative assessment and problem solving in mathematics. The dissertation will take place at 09.00 in KBE 301 Lilla Hörsalen, Umeå University. The faculty opponent is Professor Guri Nortvedt, University of Oslo, Norway.

Read the full thesis