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Exploring Cognitive and Foundational Processes Underlying Pre-algebra among Students with and without Mathematics Learning Difficulties

Research Team

Principal Investigator: Jessica Namkung

Co-Principal Investigators: Wendy Smith

Funding Information

Funding Agency: Institute of Education Sciences (IES)

Award Date: Jul 1, 2020

End Date: Jun 30, 2022


While proficiency in algebra is foundational for competing successfully in the American workforce, students with mathematics learning disabilities (MD) show the most severe and consistent underachievement in algebra compared to those with typical development (TYP).

Although pre-algebra competence in middle school is critical to laying conceptual foundations for formal algebra, mathematics research and evidence-based interventions targeting pre-algebra for students with MD are scarce. Therefore, research on identifying relevant processes for pre-algebra, which can serve as subsequent targets for intervention development, is urgently needed.

This study focuses on executive functions — working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility — as malleable cognitive processes, and language, magnitude understanding and arithmetic competence as malleable foundational processes. The goals of the proposed study are to:

  • identify links among cognitive and foundational processes, and pre-algebra competence among seventh graders with MD vs. TYP;
  • explore whether cognitive processes indirectly contribute to pre-algebra competence through foundational mathematics processes for students with MD vs. TYP; and
  • explore factors (i.e., MD severity and comorbidity with reading difficulties) that moderate the relation between the cognitive processes and language, and pre-algebra.

Findings will build theoretical foundations for understanding the differentiated role of cognitive and foundational processes that underlie pre-algebra competence.

Early Childhood Education and Development, Social, Emotional and Behavioral Well-being

Jessica Namkung, assistant professor of special education and communication disorders