Team looks at how children learn

Friday, September 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:34 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

A peculiar mix of testing tools — ranging from psychology books to Sesame Street character puppets — greets anyone who ventures into David Geary’s lab. This summer Geary, an MU researcher and professor, received the Method to Extend Research in Time, or MERIT, award from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a division within the National Institutes of Health. The award allows him to research students for whom mathematics is particularly challenging.

“For a long time, we couldn’t get any funds to do research in this area because nobody believed there was a real problem,” Geary said.

Geary said the object of his research is to understand why some children struggle with math even though they should be able to learn it. Once they identify the problem, they can strategize different ways to solve it, he added.

Geary, 47, received his master’s degree in clinical, child and school psychology and his doctoral degree in developmental psychology. He has been at MU for 15 years and is the chairman of the department of psychological sciences.

The MERIT award could fund 10 years of research, allowing Geary and lab assistants Jennifer Byrd-Craven, Mary Hoard, Lara Nugent and Chattavee Numtee, the opportunity to conduct the research.

Children’s learning disabilities are of interest to Geary because, he said, there wasn’t much information on them.

“I started working on mental arithmetic, doing mathematical modeling of how people solve simple and complex arithmetic problems,” Geary said. He focuses on how people remember facts and how long it takes them to solve problems, he said.

Many hours of preparation are needed before testing begins. “First of all, you develop, over 10 years, a really close relationship with the public schools,” Hoard, a lab assistant, said. “They actually allow you to come into the school, use a tiny corner of their space and pull the children out of class for half an hour at a time.”

Three hundred students from eight Columbia schools gained parental consent to be a part of Geary’s research. Participating children will be tested three times a year to evaluate their progress.

“An example of a test would be seven plus nine,” Geary said, “paying close attention to whether the child counts on their fingers or retrieves the information from memory.”

Sesame Street puppets, like Big Bird, are used in some of the tests. Big Bird will count objects on a table and sometimes violate a counting rule. Researchers can determine whether the child notices the rule violation, as well as whether he or she has some knowledge of counting principles.

One concern of this type of research involves keeping children and parents engaged in the study over many years. The team gives incentives to help ensure continued participation.

“When we test them in schools, they get a book and some stickers. They love it,” Nugent said. “When they are out of school they get a book, some prizes and $10.” Throughout the year, the researchers keep in touch with the families by sending birthday cards, magnets and stickers to the children. A mobile testing unit comes in handy when tracking the same group of participants through the years.

“In the most recent grant, Dave (Geary) put in a request for a mobile testing unit,” Hoard said. “So we have a van that has a desk inside and a testing area. If the school doesn’t have enough room, we can pull up in the parking lot and test kids there.”

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