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Program makes math easy as 1, 2, 3

Researchers study cues to predict performance

“Math is pretty hard for me,’’ said Krystal Lapinski, a sophomore. “And in this program, the ‘help’ works.’’ “Math is pretty hard for me,’’ said Krystal Lapinski, a sophomore. “And in this program, the ‘help’ works.’’ (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / June 7, 2010

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TURNERS FALLS — While Shelby Lapinski worked to solve a geometry problem on her computer screen, her seat cushion monitored fidgeting and a camera registered uncertainty or concentration flitting across her face. A bracelet measured sweat, and the mouse, fitted with pressure sensors, tracked her grip.

Lapinski was taking part in a study that looks at whether a computer math tutoring program that can detect and respond to students’ emotions — offering encouragement or hints at the right moment — can reduce frustration and anxiety. Initial results look promising.

“Math is pretty hard for me,’’ Lapinski, a sophomore at Turners Falls High School, said later. “And in this program, the ‘help’ works.’’

The researchers are examining whether changing the context of a math problem and other subtle environmental cues can influence students’ — especially girls’ — performance and confidence in their math ability. While studies have shown that girls are as good at math as boys, there is also evidence that, despite major gains over the past few decades, women are less likely to choose math- and science-oriented careers.

“We’ve seen girls perform similarly [to boys], but what we have seen also is that in high school, when we arrive and give them surveys about how they feel about math . . . they score worse. They feel more frustrated and anxious than boys,’’ said Ivon Arroyo, a research scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is working on the software being tested at Turners Falls, called Wayang Outpost.

“That may make girls not persevere as much in the harder problems.’’

Wayang Outpost offers students hints, video tutorials, and a learning companion — a character who sits in the corner of the screen and whose race and gender can be matched to the student.

For instance, if a student is speeding through the program, the character might say, “That was too easy for you. Let’s hope the next one is more challenging so that we can learn something.’’ If the student gets an answer wrong, the character might encourage the use of a different strategy to arrive at the correct solution.

In an initial study of 108 students, Arroyo, UMass computer scientist Beverly Woolf, and colleagues found that while boys’ and girls’ math abilities were the same, girls reported feeling worse when solving problems. After using the software and learning companion, girls reported less frustration and more confidence. And all students, regardless of gender, performed better.

The project is just one way in which researchers are trying to understand how school or work environments can affect students’ or employees’ sense that they belong or will succeed. Many studies have examined “stereotype threat,’’ in which performance is affected when people are reminded of a stereotype.

Researchers now are testing whether certain situations can make people feel vulnerable. Others are looking at “ambient belonging,’’ the ways in which environmental cues, such as a room’s decor, can affect whether a person has a sense of fitting in and develops interest in a subject.

It’s “a different approach from looking inside, asking what are the problems inside people’s heads,’’ said Mary Murphy, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Instead, the approach “is premised around the idea that environments matter in how we think about ourselves, about how we think about our aspirations, and what we will do in the future.’’

In an experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009, college students were told they were participating in a career center study assessing interest in technical jobs. Participants came to one of two rooms. One was decorated with “Star Trek’’ posters, soda cans, junk food, comics, and video game boxes — objects associated with computer science. The researchers wanted to see if the stereotypical objects carried masculine cues that affected women’s interest in the subject. The other room used nonstereotypical objects, such as a nature poster, coffee mugs, and general interest magazines.

Women expressed less interest in computer science than men in the first room, according to Sapna Cheryan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who led the work. In the second room, men and women were equally interested in computer science.

In new research, college students met with male or female actors portraying an upperclassman computer scientist. The actor either met the stereotype for a computer scientist, wearing an “I Code, Therefore I Am’’ T-shirt, for example, or had a more neutral outfit and list of hobbies. Cheryan found that regardless of the gender of the actor, women who interacted with the person who met the stereotype were less likely to be interested in the field and more likely to think they would perform poorly.

Murphy has found that even college science or engineering majors who already have interest and ability in those fields are not immune to situational cues.

“Intervening at this early stage is critical for buffering women’s identity in math, science, engineering,’’ Murphy said of the work by the UMass team.

On a recent visit to the Turners Falls computer lab, students in an MCAS prep class expressed reservations about math, calling it everything from boring to hard.

But the researchers hope the data they collect will help them understand how to present problems in a way that erases emotional barriers to doing math.

“When students come in, they have big baggage — all their preconceptions of what math is about,’’ said Arroyo. “There are so many messages being transmitted that are not only the [math] problem.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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