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Sarah Powell

Special Education Professor Searches for Math Disability, Symbols Connection

Recent studies suggest that between 5 and 9 percent of school age children struggle with some form of math learning disability. Sometimes called “dyscalculia,” difficulty with mathematics encompasses a range of symptoms, including trouble understanding and manipulating numbers, and learning mathematic facts.

Over the last 30 years, copious research has been conducted on reading disabilities, while studies of math-specific learning disabilities are fewer and farther between. Sarah Powell, a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, is working to change that.

“Math is nowhere near as researched as reading,” said Powell, whose interests include developing and testing interventions for students with mathematics difficulties. “You can ask lots of very interesting questions in math that no one has addressed before. Math has a much larger knowledge base that we need to figure out.”

Powell’s passion for mathematics developed early. “I was always much better at math than reading,” she said. “Which is odd, because my parents are both English teachers. But math makes sense to me. There’s always an answer in mathematics. That’s not always the case with reading. You can interpret ‘A’ in many different ways, but three plus four is always going to be seven.”

After beginning her career as a kindergarten teacher, Powell went on to earn her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, where she honed her research skills as a project coordinator of grants related to word-problem solving and computation for elementary students. She found herself attracted to the idea of helping kids overcome learning disabilities that impede their math skills.

“Often when kindergartners and first graders experience trouble with math, they start to push it aside,” said Powell. “It snowballs so that you get second and third grade students saying, ‘I’m not good at math. I hate math.’”

“Math makes sense to me. There’s always an answer in mathematics. That’s not always the case with reading. You can interpret ‘A’ in many different ways, but three plus four is always going to be seven.” – Dr. Sarah Powell

Powell’s doctoral dissertation, which won awards from the Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children and the Council for Learning Disabilities, focused on the equal sign as it relates to students with math difficulties. “99 percent of kids misinterpret the equal sign,” said Powell, whose previous research on the subject revealed that when asked to provide a definition of the equal sign, most kids had no idea how to answer. “Equal is almost a word you use that has very little meaning. In Asian countries, when they talk about the equal sign, the interpretation is ‘same sign,’ so instead of six plus two equals eight, it’s six plus two is the same as eight. In the U.S., it’s very different.”

“I did a textbook analysis two years ago and discovered that textbooks don’t do a good job of providing accurate definitions. Some textbooks would actually say ‘Equal sign means where we put our answer.’ That’s not what equal sign means at all. I wondered if we provided instruction on the equal sign as balance – if that would improve kids’ equation solving. We found that kids who received equal sign instruction showed improvement in equation solving, which in turn mediated word-problem performance.”

Since joining the Special Education faculty at the College of Education last fall, Powell has distinguished herself as a motivated interventionist. In recent months she received two prestigious honors: a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Greater Texas Foundation Faculty Fellowship. The Spencer Fellowship will allow Powell to investigate elementary and middle school students’ understanding of math symbols and vocabulary, while the Greater Texas Foundation Fellowship gives her the opportunity to look at algebraic development of college level students with math difficulties.

“Both of these awards are highly competitive,” said Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education. “Sarah’s developing a line of research on interventions to remediate mathematics difficulties is important and timely.”

“I wrote the Spencer proposal not only to study students’ understanding of the equals sign, but to examine their understanding of all math symbols,” said Powell. “I’m hoping to learn which math symbols cause the most difficulty.”

The Spencer Fellowship provides funding for a two-year project. Powell will do assessments during the first year and devote the second year to developing interventions. Research involving first graders will focus on basic math signs like plus, minus, and equal, while work involving third, fifth, and seventh graders will focus on more complex signs like multiplication symbols and inequality symbols like greater than or equal to.

The Greater Texas Foundation grant, which Powell will work on concurrently with the Spencer Foundation grant, will explore very different territory. “During the three-year project, I plan to work with college students with math disabilities or difficulties — a sample of students that is rarely studied,” she said. “I want to learn how the math performance and math experiences of college students contribute to preparation for and success in college.”

Powell hopes her research helps to increase students’ confidence in math by providing better instruction. “The research shows that when students perform better in math they feel better about their math abilities. It’s all linked.”

With classroom teaching experience in her background, Powell has enormous respect for teachers, but she relishes the different responsibilities her career in higher education provides.

“A few weeks ago I was in a fourth grade classroom working with teachers and students,” she said. “But then I get to come back to the office and figure out, ‘Okay, what are we learning from that?’ I love connecting those pieces.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey