More than the sum of its parts

A Science of Learning Center collaboration examines math anxiety.

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Susan Levine, director of the University’s Science of Learning Center, has always loved math. A triple major in math, psychology, and education at Simmons College in Boston, she student-taught high school math.

Her initial research, begun while a psychology graduate student at MIT, focused on the development of face recognition. But early in her UChicago career, a lecture in the College Core’s Mind course by psychologist James Stigler about infants’ sensitivity to number “got me thinking.”

She turned to children’s math learning, finding that regardless of their socioeconomic status, young children could recognize changes in the number of objects in a set. It was number words that were more likely to cause children from lower socioeconomic groups to struggle.

“It was the language of mathematics that they were having trouble with,” Levine says, “not the basic ideas.” Levine has written about these findings in many journal articles and chapters as well as in a coauthored book, Quantitative Development in Infancy and Early Childhood (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Sian L. Beilock at the University of Chicago’s new Science of Learning Center launch in November. (Photography by Lloyd Degrane)

As Levine’s body of research on math and learning grew, Sian L. Beilock, the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology, was studying the neuroscience of performance anxiety. While Beilock focused on adults, she says, “Susan had been asking really interesting questions about this developmentally: how knowledge and attitudes develop over time.”

About five years ago the two began collaborating, studying the development of “math anxiety” and, more recently, how it can be passed from parent to child—or teacher to student. Their research found that Bedtime Math, a program designed to make math fun and relatable, helped children who were anxious about math to reduce that anxiety and improve performance.

Beilock, a member of the Science of Learning Center’s governing board and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To (Free Press, 2010), says she and Levine didn’t necessarily need the center to work together, but it will be essential to help get their research to those who can most benefit from it.

“Anyone can collaborate,” Beilock says. “But one of the goals is to support collaboration not only across faculty but with educators. A center gives you the opportunity to work with practitioner-partners systematically.”

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