What Happens When You Ask a Child to Think Aloud During Math Class

September 9, 2014

What goes through a student’s mind during math class?

To find out, we turned to a research strategy from the field of psychology: a “think-aloud.” One at a time, we asked students to go through part of a Reasoning Mind lesson voicing their thoughts out loud.  We filmed their screens, recorded their comments, and observed their body language, looking for insight into our curriculum from the student perspective. The results were surprising and encouraging:

  • Explaining the math. Despite our prompting, a few students remained steadfastly quiet during the study. But most took our words to heart, giving us a running commentary throughout the lesson. In general, they talked about the math at hand (“I multiply 7 and 3 first, and then put the zero on the end”), with barely a comment on the virtual characters or the system interface.
  • Virtual characters don’t distract. The students did not comment on the characters themselves during the lesson, so we asked students afterward.Their responses: “The tutor is helpful but his jokes are weird;” “I like Isabel;” “Martin has cool hair.” So they did notice the characters, and even had opinions on their behavior—but during the lesson itself we were encouraged to find that students’ primary focus seemed to be on the math at hand.
  • It’s a conversation. Students almost never interrupted the virtual characters. In fact, they often treated them as conversational partners, answering their questions even before the tutor did.
  • Interactivity helps. One student seemed disengaged with the lesson, sitting back in her seat while the tutor gave instructions. But whenever the virtual tutor prompted her to give an answer, she sat forward in her seat to solve the problem. We make sure lessons never go more than 30 seconds without calling for student interaction. It’s easy to tune out a lecturing teacher, but it takes some level of attention and engagement to click and drag numbers into a list of primes and composites. And for the student we observed, our commitment to interactive elements paid off: she sat up and focused on the problem at hand.

Our challenge: do a mini think-aloud with your students. Ask them to talk through their thinking during a homework problem. Share what happens on our Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Pinterest pages.

Meet Reasoning Mind's virtual characters in the 6th grade curriculum.
Meet Reasoning Mind’s virtual characters in the 6th grade curriculum.

Post by Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon, Educational Media Writer

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