Blue circles + yellow circles = better math learning
The New York Times has released a new computer game that may change the way early math skills are assessed in students.
June 21, 2011 by Deepa Srikantaiah, World Learning|

The blue and yellow circles kept popping up on my screen again and again. Was it a cyber attack?  A malfunctioning computer? Actually, it was a very simple online exercise that may dramatically change the way early math skills are assessed in students.

It all started when a colleague sent me a link to a New York Times article on math.  I opened the link to find a game.  My screen read:

Testing Your Approximate Number Sense

I clicked play.  Suddenly a group of blue and yellow circles flashed in front of my eyes.

Then a black screen prompted me, “Did you see more blue or yellow dots?”  I clicked blue.  “Correct,” was displayed on my screen, and the option to “play again.”  I clicked play.  I was addicted.  Before I knew it, I was playing for almost 15 minutes!

The NY Times article is actually not a game, but an exercise which highlights the importance of approximating.  Studies show that people who can  approximate numbers quickly, and accurately, are more successful in advanced mathematics and educational researchers are developing mathematic fluency assessments to test approximating. Assessments like the one above, are based on the theory the “Weber fraction” which explains why children have a harder time distinguishing between numbers that are closer together than further apart.  Children, can quickly tell you that 10 is larger than 5, but they may take more time to tell you that 17 is larger than 13. This is known as “the distance effect”.  Although the distance effect never disappears in individuals, adults are better able to distinguish between numbers that are closer together.

Researchers at the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario are working on testing children’s approximate number sense.  Nadia Nosworthy, a graduate student of Dr. Daniel Ansari, has developed a quick and simple early grade assessment she is using for her doctoral dissertation.  I had the opportunity to travel to London, Ontario to observe the implementation of her assessment on three children – a 1st grader, a 4th grader, and a 5th grader.  The test presents students with two boxes of dots or numbers and asks children to select which box has the larger number of dots, or which box has the larger number.  It was amazing to see how the distance effect decreased between the 1st and 5th grader.  An adult can complete the test in 2 minutes with complete accuracy.

EFA FTI is exploring opportunities for partner countries to be able to use this assessment so that they can better test students’ grade early skills in Mathematics.  Based on the results of the assessment, countries will hopefully be able to better engage students in mathematics education and create a new generation of numerically literate and productive members of society.

Learn More:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5… Invest in early math education for all a blog entry by Deepa Srikantaiah  
Testing Your Approximate Number Sense The New York Times

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