The Research Project – Week Eight, Delaware Denominators

The Institute of Education Sciences, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a $10 million grant to University of Delaware Prof. Nancy C. Jordan and her two colleagues, Lynn Fuchs at Vanderbilt University and Robert Siegler at Carnegie Mellon University, to fund a five-year research and development center aimed at understanding difficulties students have with fractions.

The Center for Improving Learning of Fractions, administered at UD, will focus on improving math instruction for elementary and middle school children who have problems with math concepts, specifically fractions.

“It’s really exciting but also a huge responsibility,” said Jordan.  “The center is going to involve top researchers coming together to work on solving an important problem in education.”

Many students cruise along just fine in math until fourth grade or so. Then, they hit a wall—fractions. When I shared this with a veteran educator she had an interesting comment. She said that students are first taught that the bigger the number the higher its value. Then, when they get to fractions, they have to look at things a new way. Just because a fraction has higher numbers does not mean it has a higher value. National tests show nearly half of eighth-graders aren’t able to put three fractions in order by size.

For example, in this list of fractions, 1/2, 7/16 and 12/32, the fraction with the smallest numbers has the greatest value. The fraction with the largest number has the smallest value. The way I was taught to figure this out is to express all of the fractions with a common denominator (the bottom number in a fraction): 16/32, 14/32 and 12/32.

Trouble with fractions is the most common reason parents seek math help for their fourth- and fifth-graders, says Larry Martinek, chief instructional officer of Mathnasium Learning Centers, a Los Angeles-based franchiser with 385 U.S. tutoring centers.

“If you don’t understand fractions, it’s literally impossible for you to understand algebra, geometry, physics, statistics, chemistry,” Dr. Siegler says. “It closes a lot of doors for children.” New federal standards known as the Common Core, which are being implemented in most states, require students to be multiplying and dividing fractions by fifth grade.

The new methods the center is developing focus more on building a conceptual understanding of fractions. Instead of traditional pie charts, they rely more on tools like number lines, paper models and games putting fractions in context.

I consulted two articles about this research, one at the University of Delaware’s web site and the other at the Wall Street Journal:

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