Study shows program improves students’ teaching skills and word problem solving

LAWRENCE — Students learning to solve math word problems may struggle to combine math and language skills. For English language learners, the fastest growing minority in American schools, this challenge can be even greater when trying to learn mathematical concepts in a second language. A new study from the University of Kansas found that a professional development intervention with evidence-based practices helped an educator improve her teaching skills and boosted students’ ability to solve word problems and maintain their improvement.

Michael Orosco, associate professor of educational psychology at KUMichael Orosco, an associate professor of educational psychology at KU, co-authored a study in which he provided a professional development intervention to help a third-grade teacher model concepts for students in problem-solving words and help them understand difficult vocabulary. The teacher then used these skills to teach nine Hispanic English language learners with math learning disabilities. Each of the students progressed from the level at which they began to solve more difficult problems and maintained the improvement after the intervention.

The study is an example of how professional development can be viewed as an implementation science, a practice in which research is transferred effectively into practice. In the case of a teacher’s professional development, this can be a more effective way to apply what is learned in research to what teachers practice in the classroom.

“Professional development is one of the most important next steps we will have to think about in education,” Orosco said. “Especially with teachers who have high levels of diversity and learners of English in their classes. In this case, we were able to apply it to word problems, which is a precursor to algebra.

The study, which Orosco co-authored with Deborah Reed, professor of special education at the University of Iowa, was published in the Learning Disabilities Diarythe highest rated educational psychology journal by Google Scholar. For the study, Orosco worked with a teacher who wanted additional training on how to teach math concepts to English learners with math learning difficulties. The intervention, based on evidence-based practices, took a baseline measure of students’ abilities, trained the teacher in instructional scaffolding – or how to better model word problem-solving skills, contextualize questions and teaching mathematical vocabulary to the population – then retested their abilities after implementation.

The success of teacher and students is proof that individualized professional development interventions are a valid alternative to randomized controlled trials, in which interventions are tested with tens or even hundreds of students and multiple teachers.

“In public education, you can’t control all the variables because there are always unique characteristics with different students, different communities, and many other factors,” Orosco said. “Single case finding is ideal in this case. If a teacher needs help, give it to him. If a school needs help, give it to them. And if a teacher needs extra help, we can give it.

The intervention trained the teacher not only to help contextualize ideas in a second language for students, but also helped teacher and students to communicate, and students showed they were able to reflect on their experiences. It also helped to develop a “feedback loop” between the educator and the students, in which the former offered instructions and encouragement, the latter could ask questions, and if a student did not understand, he could interrupt the lesson and focus more on the concept in question. . Following the intervention, the students took a standardized test to assess their ability to solve word problems, and all nine had maintained their improvements and abilities to solve more difficult problems, indicating what Orosco calls a ” transfer effect” from research to the teacher and in turn to the students.

Orosco, who has published research in both randomized clinical trials and single-case experimental design for word problem solving for English learners and tools to help educators reach the same population, said the current study with a single-case design is ideal for translating evidence-based research directly into classrooms and helping teachers, who often don’t have the time to find published research and try to translate it into their own work.

“Our teacher in this study was able to get these children to solve word problems at higher levels, which is not just about math skills, but language skills as well,” Orosco said. “We’re doing this to show that this is solid, practical implementation science. It is doable and schools can incorporate it into their practices. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of professional development to help teachers.

Top image: A graph shows the progress of two students’ reading and math problem-solving ability before, during, and during the sustainability portion of an intervention.

Image credit: Authors of the study.

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