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Students' (lack of) comprehension of mathematics texts

Research project The project will investigate how properties of mathematical texts can be adapted to improve students' understanding and what types of reading strategies students can use for mathematical texts to improve their understanding.

Many students have difficulty to understand mathematical texts. We need knowledge about how students should read mathematics texts and how mathematics texts can be designed in the best way. Such knowledge can help teachers and textbook authors to avoid situations where mathematics does not make sense to students. The purpose of the project is to explain students' (lack of) understanding of mathematical texts. In this project, eye movements will be used to create new knowledge about this.

Head of project

Magnus Österholm
Associate professor, research fellow
E-mail
Email

Project overview

Project period:

2022-01-01 2026-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Science and Mathematics Education, Umeå Mathematics Education Research Centre

Research area

Educational sciences, Mathematics

Project description

Mathematics does not make sense for many students. For example, usually 15-20% of students in grade 9 do not pass the national test in mathematics, while the number is lower for other subjects. Also, textbooks usually do not give students the opportunity to make sense of mathematics through reasoning, but they focus on (meaningless) imitation of given procedures. At the same time, a central aspect of mathematics is its multi-semiotic nature, that is, mathematics deals with several different written systems (semiotic systems), such as the symbolic language, graphs, diagrams, and images. Thus, students' lack of comprehension of mathematics texts can be detrimental for their learning.

Therefore, we need knowledge about how students read mathematics texts, for example, if and how they focus on some types of semiotic systems more than others. We also need knowledge about how students should read mathematics texts, and how mathematics texts can be designed in the best way. Such knowledge can help teachers and textbook authors to avoid situations where mathematics does not make sense for students.

However, the existing research basis for helping teachers and textbook authors is quite small. For example, research on mathematics textbooks mostly focuses on how the texts are constructed, but rarely focuses on students' use of textbooks. Also, research on how students should read mathematics texts are primarily theoretical or discussions without empirical bases.

Besides the need for more research, new methods are also needed to allow for more in-depth knowledge of students' reading of mathematics texts. One method that has not previously been used with such purpose is eye-tracking. Eye-tracking can provide researchers with more objective data than other methods, such as self-reporting, since eye-tracking can show what parts of the mathematics texts students read first and/or spend most time on. Therefore, eye-tracking has an unrealized potential for new insights regarding, for example, how the integration of different semiotic systems in a text affects the reading process.

The purpose of this project is to explain students' (lack of) comprehension of mathematics texts. The overarching questions concern 1) how properties of mathematics texts can be adapted to improve students' comprehension and 2) what types of reading strategies students can use for mathematics texts to improve their comprehension. The methodology is based on existing research on properties of mathematics texts, previous eye-tracking studies, and an established theory of comprehension. By combining these lines of research, the project becomes novel and highly relevant, in that it provides insights into relations previously unexplored.

In this project, we will let students read different types of mathematics texts while we record the eye-movements. We will collect data about the students' prior knowledge in mathematics before the reading of the text, and of the comprehension of the text after the reading. This will allow us to examine if and how the reading process and the comprehension differ between different texts and students. The analyses will be both quantitative for large groups of students, to identify overarching relations, and qualitative for smaller groups, to allow for in-depth and detailed results.

The project group has many years of experience from research on reading and mathematics and have also experience of using eye-tracking technology in educational research. All parts of the methodology are therefore well-known and previously used by the applicants but combined in a novel manner in the proposed project.