Teaching styles focus of 5-year math study

Jennifer Nacin

New and improved methods for teaching middle school mathematics may be just around the corner.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $600,000 education grant to the College of Education that will support research in mathematics education and teaching techniques within middle schools. This five-year project will study middle school math teaching, student-teacher interactions and ways to improve them.

Beth Herbel-Eisenmann, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, is the lead researcher in this study.

Herbel-Eisenmann said the research team will work with Iowa middle school mathematics teachers from central Iowa school districts, including the Des Moines school district. The team will observe teaching styles and student-teacher interactions to determine the most effective modes of helping students comprehend and understand mathematical material.

“What I would like to see is more engagement verbally from students,” Herbel-Eisenmann said, “because it is the only way teachers can assess where students are at.”

She said asking open-ended questions and asking the students how they solved the problem rather than telling them how to solve it will “lend itself better to conceptual understanding and deeper mathematics.”

Cathy Curtis, alumni officer in education administration, said she looks forward to the data Herbel-Eisenmann will accumulate during the next five years.

“What she is going to study is how teachers talk and how it affects learning,” Curtis said.

“First, she is going to observe the interactions among the teachers and the students. Then she is going to measure how different types of interactions affect the learning.”

Michelle Cirillo, graduate student in curriculum and instruction and member of the research team, said a main goal of this study is to help students not only memorize mathematical equations, but also discover how the mathematical rule came to be and how it can be used in a real-world setting.

“The traditional [teaching] method didn’t promote problem-solving and thinking skills,” Cirillo said.

“It was more of a rote memorization of definitions and rules.”

The more students can relate mathematics problems to real-life situations, the more they will be able to comprehend and utilize those applications, she said.

Herbel-Eisenmann said teachers involved in the study will follow the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

The standards recommend proper and beneficial ways to teach middle school mathematics, she said.

Another aspect of the study will involve showing teachers that students from different cultures, ethnicities and economic backgrounds may benefit from hearing real-life mathematical problems that better relate to their life experiences, Herbel-Eisenmann said.

Curtis said the language teachers use to teach mathematics can be an important factor in whether or not the students understand it. She said using the word “always” when referring to a mathematical solution implies there is only one way to conclude the problem. Curtis said it was important to make sure students understand when there is one or multiple ways to answer a problem.

“When we talk about math, we usually think numbers and equations,” Curtis said.

“We don’t think about language. But the language that we use in talking about mathematics affects our understanding.”

Herbel-Eisenmann said data collection for the study will begin in the spring.