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Grant Probes How Brain Works

UC Riverside Awarded $700,000 Grant to Probe How The Brain Solves Math Problems

Study May Lead to Better Help for Students at Risk for Developing Learning Disabilities

(January 27, 2003)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Jan 27, 2003 — The U.S. Department of Education has awarded the University of California, Riverside, a three-year, $700,000 grant to study the processes the brain uses in solving mathematical word problems. The grant will fund research to help educators and policymakers develop better teaching and intervention methods to assist children at risk of developing learning disabilities and falling behind in mathematics.

H. Lee Swanson, a professor of education and the Peloy Chair at the Graduate School of Education at UC Riverside, will head the research effort. UC Riverside education researcher, Margaret Beebe-Frankenberger, will manage the project at the classroom level. They will follow first-through-third graders at public and private schools in San Bernardino, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. The students in the study have been classified at risk of developing learning disabilities related to mathematics and word-problem solving.

“We’ll follow them and see if they remain low functioning and evaluate which processes remain low and which improve over time,” Swanson said. “We’re also going to be looking at students’ abilities to filter out irrelevant information from that which is relevant to solving mathematics word problems.”

The UC Riverside award is one of eight grants announced under the $4.8 million federal Cognition and Student Learning Research Grant Program. The program directs research on basic and higher order thinking skills and their links to improved student learning and higher academic achievement.

The UC Riverside research will add valuable knowledge to the issue of deciphering how the brain processes mathematics concepts presented in word problems. It is expected to serve as a basis for the development of new teaching methods to help students learn, and teachers instruct, more effectively.

Mathematical skills is an area where there is not a very well developed body of research, according to Swanson. “There are not many longitudinal studies that focus on mathematics in the early grades.”

Swanson’s research team is currently conducting baseline testing for about half of about 400 students who will be taking part in the study. They will come from schools in Colton, Vista and Pasadena. Testing should be completed by about May.
The focus on early grades is crucial, according to Swanson, because it catches problems before they become more complex and harder to alleviate.

The research will serve as a foundation upon which teachers, administrators and policy makers can develop better ways to identify learning disabilities in the area of mathematics at an early stage, which can lead to more effective intervention, according to Swanson.

“The earlier you can identify processes associated with mathematics deficiencies, the better you can fashion strategies to help overcome those problems,” he said.

The Graduate School of Education at UC Riverside sustains distinguished doctoral programs in selected areas. Its teacher preparation program, one of the largest in the UC system, is recognized for its quality and innovation. The School offers specializations in curriculum and instruction, educational psychology, leadership and policy studies, school psychology and special education. U. S. News and World Report recently rated the faculty fifth in the nation in research productivity based on publication records. The School has attracted nearly $11,000,000 in grant funds over the past three years. Faculty members are active in various field-based programs, including the California Educational Research Cooperative and the School-University Partnership.


The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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