Numbers in Context

Numbers in Context is Dr. Mazzocco’s primary research program. It concerns the foundational role of cognitive development in the development and nature of mathematical thinking in children and adults. Some ongoing and completed studies focus on the following:

  • Attention to number. This research concerns the physical context that influences if, when, and how young children and adults attend to number as a feature of stimuli in their environment. We focus on developmental and individual differences, and correlates of attention to number. This research has implications for assessing or measuring the construct of spontaneous focus on/ attention to number and its malleability.We have completed an experimental study of attention to number in children and adults using a matching task in which we demonstrated that the likelihood that a person will match stimuli based on a numerical feature (e.g., matching a picture of three squares and three triangles), rather than another available feature, depends on the nature of those competing “other” features, such as color, shape, or angular position. Moreover, we show both developmental and individual differences in the degree to which this physical context influences matching on number (Chan & Mazzocco, 2017). We completed additional studies on parents’ attention to number during semi-structured play and shared reading. We are currently developing a study of attention to number in naturalistic settings (Chan, Praus-Singh, & Mazzocco, 2019).
  • In a series of iterative studies, we evaluated how semantic and syntactic context facilitates or interferes with computational fluency in adults. This work builds on earlier numerical processing studies (e.g., as reported by Joanne LeFevre) on the interference effects of “obligatory” or automatic addition in numerical judgments, and other findings (from Bassok and colleagues) that showed that these interference effects are modulated by semantic alignment of words paired with numbers. In our work, we showed that this semantic modulation effect is influenced further by the nature of semantic alignment or misalignment, such that contexts that pose severe misalignment may actually reverse interference effects. This first study from this work was funded by a University of Minnesota Grant in Aid to Dr. Mazzocco, and was reported by Ethan Brown, Michele Mazzocco, Luke Rinne, & Noah Scanlon, 2016, in the Journal of Numerical Cognition.
  • In our early studies of linguistic context involving relational or categorical language, we showed that the outcomes of assessments of children’s number knowledge vary with context. Our work has implications for the development and interpretation of assessments, and for theories of young children’s emerging number concepts. We published preliminary data (Mazzocco, Chan, & Sera, 2016) that led to a National Science Foundation-funded project to study the relation between linguistic, executive function, and numerical skills in children at risk for mathematical learning disabilities, launched in 2017.

Note: We piloted all of this work at the 2014 Minnesota State Fair, in the Driven to Discover Research Pavilion:

Driver to discover Lab TeamThe 2014 Math and Numeracy Lab at the Minnesota State Fair: Driven to Discover!

(left to right:)

Taylor, Ella, Ethan, Jenny, Michele, and Jenny