Purdue Profiles: Laura Bofferding

November 12, 2013  

Laura Bofferding

Laura Bofferding, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Laura Bofferding is on a quest to understand how young children learn mathematics -- and how those insights might lead to more effective ways to teach.

Bofferding, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, is looking at whether introducing children to negative numbers at a young age helps them better understand number and operations concepts that support students’ understanding of more complicated mathematical concepts later in their education. She recently received a 2013-14 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship to support research on that topic.

What are the fellowship's details?

The fellowship supports academics who are doing significant, education-related research. Hundreds usually apply for this national award, and this year only 20 recipients were selected. It's an honor to have received one.

The fellowship releases me from some of my teaching responsibilities during the next two years, allowing me to focus on this time-intensive research. I'll use that time to expand upon prior research on the benefits of playing linear board games. Previous studies looked at how children who played a board game requiring them to count from one to 10 improved their understanding of numerical magnitudes and addition concepts. The study found that, in the children who played the board game approximately 20 times, those who entered school with less number knowledge than their peers actually caught up and, in some cases, surpassed them.

My study will involve a similar concept, except I will engage children in a board game that requires them to count from –10 to 10. The idea is that young children are not normally exposed to negative numbers because that concept is often considered too difficult. However, I'll look at whether the same gain in the children who played the one-to-10 counting game will hold true when children play a game involving negative numbers.

What do you hope to learn from this study?

If the negative-numbers game does help children understand the order and values of negative numbers, hopefully it will help them develop a more robust understanding of number relationships and addition and subtraction and help them get a head start on learning more complicated mathematics concepts later down the road. It will be interesting to see the study's results -- I'm just now starting to collect data. This year I am working with 50 first graders and next year I will work with 50 kindergarteners from the local area.

What other research are you conducting?

I recently received a grant from the Purdue Research Foundation to look at preschool teachers' mathematics experiences. More specifically, along with a graduate student I will gather information about teachers’ experiences learning to teach mathematics and the types of activities they use in their classrooms that they consider mathematical. Then, we'll ask their preschool students to describe what they are doing as they participate in those activities and to tell us if the activity involves mathematics.

Essentially, we'll try to determine whether teachers' perception of what and how students learn mathematics matches up with how and what the students say they learn. We'll use that information to inform our work with teachers in mathematics methods courses.

Why did you decide to study the pedagogy of primary math?

Before I came to Purdue, I was a first-grade teacher in Las Vegas. That job made me realize that there was a lot about the development of students’ mathematical understanding that I did not know. So much about teaching involves understanding how students learn, so I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue those questions. I ended up receiving a master's and PhD from Stanford, and then I came to Purdue.

What classes do you teach now?

I'm teaching a course for undergraduates called Mathematics in the Elementary School, which is a mathematics methods course for students training to become elementary teachers. Our students take it right before they begin student teaching, so we try to involve elements that will help them with that part of their education.

Specifically, the undergraduates in the class participate in a pen-pal program that involves fourth-grade students in a charter school near Indianapolis.  The undergraduates pose a mathematics problem via a letter to the students, the students answer the mathematics problem and then the undergraduates analyze the answers. This process continues until the undergraduates have posed several mathematics problems to the students. At the end of the class, the undergraduates provide the teacher in Indianapolis with a report.

This program is helpful for our students because they're able to work one-on-one with a fourth-grader. It's also helpful for the elementary students, because they're able to engage with our students and with mathematics in a different way. It's a win-win for everyone.

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu

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