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Ann Dowker


University Research Lecturer

Research Summary

My research focuses mainly on the development of mathematical abilities, especially young children’s counting and arithmetic. I am particularly interested in individual differences in arithmetic. Why do some children and adults enjoy arithmetic and deal very well with it, while others find it very difficult and even frightening? It is a paradox that counting and number skills, at least at a basic level, are essentially universal, and yet outcomes are so diverse. This is important for researchers to study, both because it is relevant to many wider issues of how we think, learn and develop, and why individual differences are so great in many areas, and because the topic of mathematical abilities and disabilities is one of great practical and educational importance. For example, studies suggest that about one-fifth of the British population have severe difficulties with numeracy, which seriously interfere with their ability to carry out practical tasks; and that a far larger number perform well below expected educational standards.

My research suggests that individual differences cannot be seen simply in terms of people being ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ at maths. Arithmetic is made up of many components, and though these in discrepancies between any two such components, in both directions, are common. For example, a preschooler may be good at counting procedures but not at understanding the purpose of counting, or vice versa. An older child or adult may be good at exact calculation but not at estimation, or vice versa; or may find written sums much easier or much more difficult than story problems.  

This topic of discrepancies between different components is one of the main areas of my research. Another is the topic of attitudes and emotions related to mathematics, including both positive attitudes such as enjoyment, and negative attitudes, such as mathematics anxiety; and the ways in which these are related to mathematical performance. In particular, I am beginning a collaboration with Denes Szucs and Ros MacLellan of Cambridge University on a Nuffield Foundation - funded project on ‘Understanding Mathematics Anxiety.’ I am also interested in the effects of culture and language on arithmetic. For example, I have worked with Delyth Lloyd on a study of children attending English and Welsh medium schools in Wales, and the ways in which the relatively regular Welsh counting system may make some aspects of arithmetic easier.

I have been applying the findings of my research on mathematical development to the development and evaluation of interventions to help children with mathematical difficulties.

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