The broad objective of this study, led by a team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University, is to further understanding of the neural and cognitive basis for mathematics learning. The focus will be on mathematics problem-solving strategies used by adolescents, and how these strategies are adopted and changed as problems become systematically more difficult. The project will examine the association of these strategies with mathematics-related cognitive skills, scores on tests of mathematics achievement, and patterns of brain activations displayed by adolescents while engaged in these strategies. Problem-solving strategies are of interest because of their relation to higher-level mathematic achievement and the insights they can offer into the basis of individual differences in mathematics learning. The longer-term objective of the project is to discover new ways to tailor mathematical learning strategies to individual cognitive and neural capacities. The project will also undertake innovative methods of collecting information about neural functioning during math tasks with the potential to influence future studies of the brain systems involved in learning and behavior. The project is funded by the EHR (Education and Human Resources directorate) Core Research program, which supports fundamental research that advances the literature on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning.
Participants will be adolescents, 14-16 years of age, who were previously enrolled in a longitudinal study of the consequences of preterm versus term birth on academic progress across the first 3 years in school. Measures will include tests of spatial skills, attention, executive functions such as working memory, number sense, and mathematics achievement; sets of mental arithmetic and fractions problems of varying difficulty designed to reveal individual differences in problem-solving strategies; and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedures to examine the neural correlates of these strategies. Following piloting with a separate sample of young adults, cognitive and achievement tests and assessments of problem-solving strategies will be administered to 100 adolescents, 50 of whom will be selected on the basis of their problem-solving strategies to complete in-magnet problem-solving tasks. Adolescents with more advanced problem-solving strategies (characterized by reliance on retrieval of solutions) are hypothesized to display more intact cognitive profiles and higher levels of mathematics achievement than those using less advanced approaches (characterized by more effortful multi-step procedures). Adolescents using more advanced strategies are also hypothesized to show patterns of brain activation in regions specialized for efficient mathematics processing, such as the hippocampus and posterior parietal region, as compared to regions that are less specialized such as the prefrontal area. These participants are also expected to display less pronounced changes in activation patterns with increased problem difficulty, suggestive of greater neural efficiency in mathematics problem-solving and less reliance on compensatory systems. The project will include novel statistical methods for cognitive modeling and an exciting new approach to assess brain functioning during math problem solving. This research will provide insight into the cognitive skills and neural processes associated with successful strategy adoption for problem solving, with an emphasis on neural capacity, efficiency, and compensation.