Psychology Researcher Wants to Figure Out How Adults and Children Learn Math

Growing up in Germany, as the daughter of a doctor, Melissa Libertus remembers casual “number talk” being a daily occurrence throughout her childhood.

As a teenager, she was a member of her high school’s mathematical Olympiad team, taking part in competitions throughout Germany.

Today, Libertus dedicates much of her professional career to helping others excel at math as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Pitt.

“The most beautiful aspect of math, for me, has always been the inherent logical structure of it. Two plus 3 always equals 5, and 5 minus 3 will always come back to be 2,” said Libertus, who's also a research scientist in the University’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC). “I understand that many people find math to be frustrating. Helping those people embrace math, instead of being fearful of it, has been the most personally rewarding part of my career and my time here at the University of Pittsburgh.”

A Pitt faculty member since 2013, Libertus examines how individuals learn mathematical concepts. Her work attempts to understand why people struggle with math comprehension, especially at a young age. The goal of her research is to provide proven findings on math comprehension and learning for the development of classroom tools and teaching philosophies.

Libertus’ pursuits in the field of mathematical comprehension have been wide and diverse. Serving as the director of Pitt’s Kids’ Thinking Lab (KiT Lab), she leads a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers in efforts to understand the learning patterns of infants and young children. In 2014, Libertus’ team drew the conclusion that the infants' number senses — the instinctive ability to gauge meaning in figures — could reliably predict their mathematical abilities later in childhood. The discovery served as an open invitation for educators to take proactive steps in the learning development process of small children with a poorer ingrained ability to understand numbers.

KiT Lab researchers also played an integral role in a 2016 study, which proved a distinct intergenerational transfer of math skills from parents to their offspring. Putting it simply, the findings showed that individuals who excel at math generally produce children who also excel at math.

I understand that many people find math to be frustrating. Helping those people embrace math, instead of being fearful of it, has been the most personally rewarding part of my career.

Melissa Libertus, Department of Psychology

Last month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Libertus a three-year, $1 million grant for her next major project, a study exploring methods for improving the math capabilities of the general public. The grants were given as part of the federal government’s BRAIN Initiative, which aims to gain a deeper understanding of the human mind in hopes of better preventing and treating brain disorders. Partnering with assistant professor of psychology Marc Coutanche and Julie Fiez, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, Libertus’ NSF-funded project examines how individuals of various ages comprehend number representations.

Libertus explained, “My latest study looks at how both kids and adults understand and work with numbers at their most basic, subconscious level. Let’s take the number ‘four,’ as an example. One could write out the word ‘four,’ or you could draw the Arabic numeral ‘4’ or have four blocks laid out on the ground before you. Regardless of how you present it, these are three different ways of representing the very basic concept of ‘four.’

Libertus as a child, wearing a navy blue sweater“Children, we’ve found, have the easiest time making this connection because they are learning at this very basic level. However, as we get older and math becomes more advanced, we learn only to manipulate number symbols, often without being reminded of what the symbols actually mean,” she said.

Her team will use behavioral assessments and functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine how these connections are made in the brains of 100 adults and 125 eight-year-olds and how those connections might change from childhood to adulthood. Libertus' team predicts that adults and children who are able to more swiftly connect four blocks to the word “four” possess superior math skills. Proving their theory accurate could eventually lead to efforts — games, programs, teaching tools — to assist the less mathematically skilled.

As a researcher in the early stages of her career, Libertus’ work has been widely recognized. Last year, she was designated a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Sciences, and the International Mind, Brain and Education Society awarded her its Early Career Award in 2014. Libertus’ insights on math and number knowledge also have been cited in The New York Times, National Public Radio and TIME, among other nationally recognized news organizations.

“To say the least, math is a subject area that has given me a great deal of personal joy,” said Libertus. “I am fascinated by the human mind and the process of discovering precisely what happens when people learn. This work has been a special calling for me all of my life.”