Recent psychology graduate Ryan Smout, ’11, wants to help educators better teach their subjects — whether it’s Latin or algebra.
As an undergraduate, Smout researched how people read and learn Latin through tracking their eye movements. Now he’s back on campus and armed with a degree, investigating how people learn algebra to ultimately improve how educators teach it.
Working with psychology professor Dr. David Landy this summer under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Smout is investigating how the brain processes math equations and algebra. Smout and Landy are developing software for the iPad that would allow students to touch equations and drag them around — a tool they hope teachers could eventually implement in classrooms.
Landy has spent time understanding how people process equations, noting that certain physical characteristics of an equation — such as how close a number is to a plus sign — can affect someone’s ability to interpret it correctly. The software would allow people to manipulate the pieces of an equation and drag them around, with the hope that students could get a better handle on how to solve the equations.
The goal is to make math a little more concrete, Smout said.
“Psychology is studying mental processes,” he said. “Algebra and math in general are interesting because they’re very abstract …. The theory is, maybe it’s not the math that’s hard in and of itself — maybe it’s how we teach it. We’re trying to teach it in a way the brain can easily understand it.”
The study will last three years, the last part of which will involve testing the iPad app in middle school classrooms.
Smout first began researching with Landy as an undergraduate, combining his psychology and Latin majors to study how the brain processes the Latin language. Because Latin is a free word order language, its sentence structure is vastly different from English and presents a challenge to English learners.
Landy and Smout began investigating how people learn Latin by how they read it using eye-tracking technology, which shines infrared light into your eye to track movement. Landy and Smout learned that word order influences how easily an English speaker reads Latin; students often try to understand it through the English structure, making Latin harder to learn.
To test their findings, Landy and Smout created a free word order version of English with a similar structure to Latin and taught it to two groups of students using different methods. One group learned to “hunt and peck” through a sentence, finding words they recognized and piecing it together; the other group learned to read the sentence left to right and hold onto words until they could understand the whole meaning.
Smout said he has written a draft version of the research for a classics journal.
“The basic theory is, how you teach it affects how you read it,” Smout said. “Let’s teach it in a way that will help them read it the best.”
Upon completing the algebra research, Smout hopes to enter a Ph.D. program for clinical psychology and ultimately become a counselor.