Federal Grant to Help UT Austin Researcher Study Student Word-Problem Solving

AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a four-year, $3 million grant to a College of Education faculty member at The University of Texas at Austin to study ways to help students better solve word-problems in math.

Sarah Powell, an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, received the grant this spring from the department's Institution of Education Sciences. Marcia Barnes, a professor in the Department of Special Education, will work with Powell on the grant-funded research.

Sarah Powell

Assistant Professor Sarah Powell. Photo by Christina Murrey

Being proficient at solving word problems is necessary for successful math performance, but many students are not adequately prepared. That is especially true for students who find mathematics to be difficult. These students demonstrate significantly lower word-problem performance and make significantly more errors when solving word problems than peers without difficulty in math. Powell’s study will assess the effectiveness of word-problem equation-solving tutoring in improving performance in these students.

“Given the importance of word-problem competency and the need for word-problem interventions for students with math difficulty, there is a critical need to determine the efficacy of word-problem intervention that improves their skill,” explains Powell.

Each year, the researchers will recruit 150 Austin-area third-graders who have difficulty in math and assign them to one of two math-tutoring programs or keep them in their usual school environment. These conditions will allow Powell and her team to isolate the effects of equation-solving instruction within word-problem instruction and compare the results with traditional classroom teaching. During three years, 450 students will participate in the study. 

“With this project, we aim to develop a word-problem intervention package that could be used by teachers across the U.S. to improve the word-problem performance of third-grade students," Powell said. "As assessments measure math skill with word problems, it’s necessary to develop effective instruction to help students.”

Powell previously taught kindergarten, then worked at Vanderbilt University as a project coordinator of grants related to word-problem instruction for elementary students. Her research interests include developing and testing interventions for students with math difficulties, especially peer tutoring, word-problem solving and the role of symbols for understanding math.