ECR Projects

Explore past and current fundamental STEM education research projects across the three research areas that NSF's EDU Core Research (ECR) program funds, as well as across ECR funding types. Other search filters draw from both NSF's data and the ECR Hub's hand coding of award abstracts.

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Improving Flexible Attention to Numerical and Spatial Magnitudes in Young Children

Effective Years: 2023-2028

Mathematical skills are essential for STEM careers, as well as crucial tools in everyday life, from financial planning to medical decision-making. Unfortunately, many students fail to reach their potential in these skills. One of the challenges that preschool-aged children face when acquiring an understanding of numbers is distinguishing between numerical magnitudes (like three elephants) and spatial magnitudes (like the size of an elephant). Prior research suggests that children often focus on the size of the objects instead of the exact number of objects (for example, when comparing 3 elephants to 6 mice, children often mistakenly say that there is a greater number of elephants than mice). The ability to flexibly pay attention to both numerical and spatial magnitudes and then determine which magnitudes are relevant for a given situation is referred to as “flexible attention to magnitudes” (FAM). This project aims to understand the development of young children’s flexible attention to magnitudes skill and how it can best be supported by specific experiences in early childhood. It is hypothesized that this skill is essential to later mathematical thinking and is an important skill for many mathematical activities, such as number line estimation and proportional reasoning.

The proposed studies are designed to identify specific mechanisms that lead to improvements in flexible attention to magnitudes (FAM) skills. The first aim of these studies is to examine the roles of mathematical language and visual experience as potential causal mechanisms that drive improvement in this skill in young children. The second aim is to determine whether improving flexible attention to magnitudes skill has a causal effect on mathematics achievement. The third aim is to test whether an intervention leads to durable improvements in flexible attention to magnitudes skill and mathematics achievement, and far transfer to executive function skills. The fourth aim is to explore whether the impact of flexible attention to magnitudes instruction depends on students’ socioeconomic status (SES) and initial number word knowledge. These aims will be tested with young children ages 3 - 5 years via three experimenter-led studies using pretest-intervention-posttest designs. Each study will compare reading books with specific types of FAM content to each other and to an active control. Study 1 will test the effects of mathematical language and Study 2 will examine the role of visual experience on FAM skill and mathematics achievement. Study 3 will examine gains in FAM skill and mathematics achievement at a delayed post-test, and far transfer to executive function skills. Study 4 will pool data from Studies 2 and 3 to provide a well-powered test of SES and number knowledge as moderators of the effects of FAM intervention. These studies will build a theoretical model of how FAM skill develops and impacts other skills, while simultaneously laying the foundation for larger-scale interventions aimed at improving children’s mathematics skills.

This project is supported by NSF's EDU Core Research (ECR) program. The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that generates foundational knowledge in the field. Investments are made in critical areas that are essential, broad and enduring: STEM learning and STEM learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.