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IES Grant

Title: Does Visual Scaffolding Facilitate Students' Mathematics Learning? Evidence From Early Algebra
Center: NCER Year: 2006
Principal Investigator: Alibali, Martha Awardee: University of Wisconsin, Madison
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $982,736
Goal: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305H060097
Description:

Purpose: What factors influence whether students comprehend and learn from instructional language? One potential factor is the nonverbal support for language comprehension provided by teachers' use of visual scaffolding, including pointing, representational gestures, diagrams, and other methods of highlighting visual information. Previous studies in noneducational settings have shown that visual scaffolding may facilitate listeners' comprehension of speech, particularly when the verbal message is ambiguous or highly complex. These findings suggest that visual scaffolding may be particularly important in instructional settings, in which students' comprehension is often challenged by new concepts and unfamiliar terms. However, little is known about how teachers actually use visual scaffolding in instructional communication or about whether such gestures influence students' comprehension and learning. This project has three aims: (1) to document how teachers use visual scaffolding in naturalistic instructional communication; (2) to investigate whether visual scaffolding promotes students' comprehension of instructional language, and therefore their learning; and (3) to investigate a possible mechanism by which visual scaffolding may promote learning-namely, by facilitating students' encoding of visual information.

Project Activities: To address these aims, the researchers will: (a) use videotaped data to examine teachers' visual scaffolding through use of gestures in middle school mathematics lessons; (b) conduct two experiments designed to examine whether increased use of visual scaffolding is associated with improved mathematics learning; and (c) conduct an experiment using videotaped lessons in which the visual scaffolding varies in systematic ways.

Products: The products from this study include a better understanding of the relation between teachers' visual scaffolding and student learning, and published reports.

Structured Abstract

Purpose: What factors influence whether students comprehend and learn from instructional language? One potential factor is the nonverbal support for language comprehension provided by teachers' use of visual scaffolding, including pointing, representational gestures, diagrams, and other methods of highlighting visual information. Previous studies in noneducational settings have shown that visual scaffolding may facilitate listeners' comprehension of speech, particularly when the verbal message is ambiguous or highly complex. These findings suggest that visual scaffolding may be particularly important in instructional settings, in which students' comprehension is often challenged by new concepts and unfamiliar terms. However, little is known about how teachers actually use visual scaffolding in instructional communication or about whether such gestures influence students' comprehension and learning. The intervention aims to: (1) document how teachers use visual scaffolding in naturalistic instructional communication; (2) investigate whether visual scaffolding promotes students' comprehension of instructional language, and therefore their learning; and (3) investigate a possible mechanism by which visual scaffolding may promote learning-namely, by facilitating students' encoding of visual information. The researchers will examine these issues in the context of middle school mathematics learning in early algebra.

Setting: The schools are located in Wisconsin.

Population: Middle school (grades 6 and 7) mathematics teachers and their students will participate. Participants will be recruited from a public school district with an ethnically diverse student population (55% European American, 23% African American, 10% Asian American, and 11% Hispanic), and a wide range of SES.

Intervention: Visual scaffolding may serve both to heighten students' attention in a general way and to guide students' encoding of specific information. This project focuses on how teachers use visual supports (e.g., diagrams, representational gestures) in their mathematics teaching to delineate links among representations and to ground abstract concepts in familiar objects and ideas.

The approach involves both naturalistic observation of teachers' use of visual supports during mathematics lessons, and experimental studies of the role of visual scaffolding in learning.

Research Design and Methods: Studies 1 and 2 will use videotaped data to document variability in visual scaffolding production across teachers, and to test the hypothesis that teachers use gestures to scaffold students' comprehension. To investigate whether teachers' visual scaffolding promotes students' comprehension of instructional language, and therefore learning, the researchers will conduct two experiments, Studies 3 and 4. In both, teachers will be asked to vary their visual scaffolding in the context of two lessons, such that in one lesson they gesture as they ordinarily do, and in the other, they use visual scaffolding. To investigate a possible mechanism by which visual scaffolding promotes comprehension and learning—namely, by facilitating students' encoding of visual information—Study 5 will utilize videotaped lessons in which the teacher uses different types of visual scaffolding, or none, to highlight aspects of the lesson.

Control Condition: In Studies 3-5, students randomly assigned to the control groups will receive lessons in which teachers gesture as they normally do.

Key Measures: For Studies 3-5, students will complete pre- and post-test paper and pencil tests designed to test knowledge of the material covered in the lesson. In addition, researchers will test a subset of students orally for their understanding of the lessons.

Data Analytic Strategy: This development project is intended only to obtain evidence of the potential efficacy of the intervention; initial analyses will be at the level of the student.

Related IES Projects: Connecting Mathematical Ideas through Animated Multimodal Instruction (R305A130016)

Publications

Book chapter

Alibali, M.W., and Nathan, M.J. (2009). Teachers' Gestures as a Means of Scaffolding Students' Understanding: Evidence From an Early Algebra Lesson. In R. Goldman, R. Pea, B. Barron, and S. J. Derry (Eds.), Video Research in the Learning Sciences (pp. 349–365). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Alibali, M.W., Nathan, M.J., and Fujimori, Y. (2008). Gestures in the Mathematics Classroom: What's the Point?. In N. Stein, and S.W. Raudenbush (Eds.), Developmental and Learning Sciences Go to School (pp. 219–234). New York: Routledge.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Alibali, M.W., and Nathan, M.J. (2010). Conducting Research in Schools: A Practical Guide. Journal of Cognition and Development, 11(4): 397–407.

Alibali, M.W., and Nathan, M.J. (2012). Embodiment In Mathematics Teaching and Learning: Evidence From Learners' and Teachers' Gestures. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(2): 247–286.

Alibali, M.W., Nathan, M.J., Church, R.B., Wolfgram, M.S., Kim, S., and Knuth, E. (2013). Teacher's Gesture and Speech in Mathematics Lessons: Forging Common Ground by Resolving Trouble Spots. ZDM-International Journal on Mathematics Education, 45(3): 425–440.

Alibali, M.W., Nathan, M.J., Wolfgram, M.S., Church, R.B., Johnson, C.V., Jacobs, S.A., and Knuth, E.J. (2014). How Teachers Link Ideas in Mathematics Instruction Using Speech and Gesture: A Corpus Analysis. Cognition and Instruction, 32(1): 65–100.

Alibali, M.W., Young, A.G., Crooks, N.M., Yeo, A., Ledesma, I., Nathan, M.J., Church, R.B., and Knuth, E.J. (2013). Students Learn More When Their Teacher has Learned to Gesture Effectively. Gesture, 13(2): 210–233.

Nathan, M.J., and Kim, S. (2009). Regulation of Teacher Elicitations in the Mathematics Classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 27(2): 91–120.


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