Students Critique Cognitive Supports for Visual Comparison in Middle School Textbooks

June 5, 2018
By: Kim Caisse

Monica GreenlawSenior Monica Greenlaw is combining her majors in psychology and early childhood education by reviewing the top middle school math and science textbooks in the United States to analyze how helpful their visual examples are to young readers.

She and the other project collaborators—students Kelsey Bedard, Amy Nguyen, and Katelyn Norsworthy, and Assistant Professor of Psychology Benjamin Jee, Ph.D.—presented the findings at the Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity on April 18 and the UMass Undergraduate Research Conference. It was also a Commonwealth Honors Project. There are plans to continue the research over the summer and through the 2018 fall semester.

“As a double major in psychology and education, I am interested in both how children learn and the ways in which we can support their learning process,” Greenlaw said.

“This project focused on how comparison is used to help children learn, particularly with visual information in the fields of math and science,” she said. “By evaluating the way comparison is currently being implemented in the top U.S. math and science textbooks from a cognitive psychology theoretical perspective, it is possible to determine areas of improvement that could ultimately result in greater learning outcomes for children across the country.”

So far, the project team has developed “a theoretically strong coding system that could be applied to evaluate the numerous visuals found in multiple middle school math and science textbooks.”

Some visuals had qualities that enhanced the reader’s ability to make relevant comparisons, while others impeded comparison.

As expected, “we found a multitude of visual types that serve a variety of purposes, all with varying levels of comparison supports,” Greenlaw said. “Some visuals had qualities that enhanced the reader’s ability to make relevant comparisons, while others impeded comparison, thus making it difficult for readers to obtain the critical abstract relational information within the visuals.”

Next, the team plans to “apply our coding scheme to help evaluate spatial alignment in the visuals involving comparison,” she added. “We will examine numerous visuals from the top U.S. middle school math and science textbooks and analyze data to determine the extent of the role that spatial alignment, color correspondences, and intervening visual information play in each visual.”

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