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University Professor Shares Research on Math Education

Arithmetic to Algebra Transition a ‘Huge Leap’

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Prof. Regina Panasuk discussed her research into how middle school math students build conceptual understanding as they progress from arithmetic to algebra in her University Professor lecture.

By Jill Gambon

For most adolescents, middle school is a time of tremendous growth — socially, academically and physically.  When it comes to learning, a major transition for middle schoolers is moving from arithmetic to algebra, from purely numerical thinking to abstract reasoning. 

That transition and the challenges it presents for both students and educators was the subject of a Prof. Regina Panasuk’s recent University Professor lecture.  Last fall, Panasuk, who teaches mathematics and mathematics education in the Graduate School of Education, was named University Professor, a three-year appointment and the highest honor bestowed on UMass Lowell faculty members. 

The lecture, held at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, highlighted Panasuk’s multi-year research study involving some 753 seventh and eighth graders at 11 middle schools and sought to shed light on the processes related to building conceptual understanding when students move from arithmetic to algebraic reasoning.
“We need to understand when and how the transition from procedural conception to structural conception takes place,” Panasuk said.  “This transition presents a significant cognitive obstacle that students encounter when symbolizing word problems and solving equations—even quite simple ones.”
From her research, Panasuk developed a framework and three-phase taxonomy categorizing the students’ conceptual understanding. Teachers can use the framework to understand and assess students’ progress in transitioning to a higher level of abstract reasoning.

“Such information is essential to planning instruction for a naturally diverse population of students with a wide range of abilities, learning preferences and attitudes,” Panasuk said.

Panasuk joined the UMass Lowell faculty in 1993. In addition to her research and teaching, she is the founder of the Graduate School of Education’s annual Colloquium on Educational Research and Practice, an event that draws more than 200 educators from across the region.  This year’s Colloquium is scheduled for April 26 and will be held at the Inn & Conference Center.