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The conceptual understanding of numbers necessary for mathematical thinking: is change development or learning? Thematic Area: Early years foundational mathematical skills

   Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

  Dr Abbie Cahoon, Prof Victoria Simms  Monday, February 06, 2023  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Weak numeracy skills have many wide-reaching negative outcomes (e.g., lower educational attainment, unemployment, and poorer mental and physical health; Davis‐Kean et al., 2021). Achievement gaps in numeracy start early with children with low mathematical skills displaying a lower growth rate in mathematical achievement overtime (Cahoon et al., 2021; Duncan et al., 2007). Yet, little is known about developmental processes in the early years (3-5-year-olds) and how this may lead to the individual differences in mathematical development observed at school start. A dynamic framework of longitudinal research is necessary for a more complete understanding of early developmental processes and individual differences in mathematical achievement (Cahoon et al., 2021).

A child’s development occurs amid complex environments influenced by educational systems (i.e., teachers) and home environment (i.e., parent/guardian) etc. (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). It is important to further our understanding of how adults create the environments that shape the course of early learning and development. Micro-change is thought to occur in short-term studies (commonly associated with learning), whereas macro-change is thought to be longer-term (commonly associated with development; Flynn & Siegler, 2007). Conceptual understanding (e.g., cardinality etc.) and procedural skills (e.g., counting etc.) in mathematics influence each other in a complex fashion that may differ from domain to domain (Nunes et al., 2008). Investigating these skills through longitudinal and microgenetic analyses allows researchers to identify possible causes of change.

This project will be experimental in design. The objectives of the research are:

1.Development and pilot tasks to measure young children’s conceptual understanding and procedural skills in mathematics.

2.To track development of mathematics and related skills in young children through longitudinal research investigating short-term (microdevelopment) and long-term (macrodevelopment) change.

3.Triangulate data gathered from children, parents and teachers using one-to-one assessments (i.e., computerised, game-like experimental tasks and standardised measures), questionnaire administration and observations.

Please note: Applications from those holding or expecting to hold a 2:1 Honours Degree in Psychology are strongly encouraged to apply.  Applications for more than one PhD studentship are welcome, however if you apply for more than one PhD project within Psychology, your first application on the system will be deemed your first-choice preference and further applications will be ordered based on the sequential time of submission. If you are successfully shortlisted, you will be interviewed only on your first-choice application and ranked accordingly. Those ranked highest will be offered a PhD studentship. In the situation where you are ranked highly and your first-choice project is already allocated to someone who was ranked higher than you, you may be offered your 2nd or 3rd choice project depending on the availability of this project.


Recommended reading:
Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). The bioecological theory of human development. In U. Bronfenbrenner (Ed.), Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development (pp. 3 – 15). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (Original work published in 2001)
Cahoon, A., Gilmore, C., & Simms, V. (2021). Developmental pathways of early numerical skills during the preschool to school transition. Learning and Instruction, 75, 101484.
Chetland, E., & Fluck, M. (2007). Children's performance on the ‘give x’ task: A microgenetic analysis of ‘counting’ and ‘grabbing’ behaviour. Infant and Child Development: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 16(1), 35-51.
Davis‐Kean, P. E., Domina, T., Kuhfeld, M., Ellis, A., & Gershoff, E. T. (2021). It matters how you start: Early numeracy mastery predicts high school math course‐taking and college attendance. Infant and Child Development, e2281.
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., ... & Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental psychology, 43(6), 1428.
Flynn, E., & Siegler, R. (2007). Measuring change: Current trends and future directions in microgenetic research. Infant and Child Development: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 16(1), 135-149.
Nunes, T., Bryant, P., & Watson, A. (2008). Paper 1: Overview. In T. Nunes, P. Bryant, & A. Watson (Eds.), Key understandings in mathematics learning. London: Nuffield Foundation. Available from
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