Understanding the Influence of Math Symbols and Vocabulary on Math Performance
Sarah Powell

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Texas

Primary Discipline

Special Education
To solve problems in math, students use numerals (e.g., 4, 29, ¾) and other math symbols (e.g., +, >, ÷). If students do not recognize a symbol or if students misinterpret the vocabulary of a symbol, math performance may suffer. Therefore, my primary research question is: How does math symbol and vocabulary understanding influence math performance?Investigation of this research question occurs over two years. In Year 1, I sample the math symbol and vocabulary knowledge of students in 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades by collecting data from 12 classrooms at each grade level. During Year 1, I learn (a) which symbols and vocabulary cause the most difficulty for students, (b) which demographic and achievement factors influence symbol and vocabulary interpretation, and (c) how symbol and vocabulary knowledge influences math performance. In Year 2, I develop classroom activities related to the most problematic set of math symbols and vocabulary at each grade level and ask students to interact with enactive and iconic representations to determine which, if any, representations foster better understanding of symbols and vocabulary. I recruit 20 classrooms at each grade level and randomly assign 12 classrooms (at each grade level) to participate in the enactive and iconic instruction and eight classrooms to act as business-as-usual control classrooms. With the Year 2 intervention work, I learn (a) which methods promote students’ correct interpretation of symbols and vocabulary, (b) how effective enactive and iconic activities enhance interpretation of symbols and vocabulary, and (c) which demographic and achievement factors may influence response to such intervention.
About Sarah Powell
Sarah Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Sarah is currently Principal Investigator of an Institute of Education Sciences Goal 3 efficacy study about a mathematics word-problem intervention for third-grade students. She is also a Faculty Fellow of the Greater Texas Foundation. Sarah completed her Ph.D. in 2009 at Vanderbilt University. Her dissertation, focused on the influence of equal-sign understanding within word-problem solving, won awards from the Council for Learning Disabilities and the Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children. Before starting at the University of Texas, Sarah completed a post-doctoral position at Vanderbilt University and worked for two years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia. Sarah’s research interests focus on developing and testing interventions for students with and without mathematics difficulties. She is especially interested in peer tutoring, word-problem solving, and understanding how mathematics symbol interpretation influences mathematics performance.

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