Early Math Research

Marsico Institute conducts extensive research on early math teaching and learning. We seek to understand how children develop, think, and learn in an effort to improve learning environments and access to high-quality early math education.

  • Bajillions: Integrated, Intelligent and Interactive Technologies Building Young Children’s Math Along Learning Trajectories

    Bajillions is a digital platform (website and app) that integrates colorful, engaging mathematics games. The backbone of Bajillions is the Path, an integration of all learning trajectory levels. Each level on the Path has one or more games that both assess and provide fun, purposeful practice of key underpinning concepts and skills. The Bajillions system guides children along the Path by dynamically and automatically progressing them to an earlier level game, later level game, or more practice on a current level game, according to what they need. Meanwhile, teachers (or parents/guardians) receive bespoke recommendations for in-person activities and other development resources. Bajillions represents the cutting-edge in educational technology, leverages content validated by decades of research, and is the rare technology product that promotes face-to-face activities as much as digital ones.


    The Marsico Institute is a member of the Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) Network, funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation. The goal of DREME is to advance the field of early mathematics research in the U.S., significantly improving how early math is taught and learned.  The Math+ project focuses on the relationship between math ability and executive function (EF) - interdependent skills of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. The Marsico Institute’s DREME team has developed and is testing a series of activities to determine whether and how they shape children’s mathematical and EF behaviors. The project aims to systematically evaluate whether the activities contribute to the development of EF and mathematics, and whether they improve differently depending on children’s initial abilities. This work includes the development and testing of an EF observational coding system. The knowledge gained will be helpful in guiding teachers as they prioritize teaching practices and effectively promote the simultaneous development of children’s mathematical thinking and executive functions. For more information, see the project webpage linked here.


    Within the Development and Research in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) Network, the Preschool-Elementary Coherence (COHERE) project is investigating the relationship between district-wide and within-school efforts to create policies and practices that improve the quality and continuity of math education from PreK through the early primary grades. The COHERE study is designed to investigate how these changes are experienced by teachers and students in classrooms and how that, in turn, influences students’ understanding of the nature of mathematics and mathematical proficiency. For more information, see the project webpage linked here.


    Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories [LT]2 is a web-based tool for early childhood educators to learn about how children think and learn about mathematics and how to teach mathematics to young children (birth to age 8). The website allows teachers to access information about children's development of math, view short video clips of classroom instruction, and explore a variety of resources including research-based instructional activities and teaching strategies. Funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported the development of children’s software and other platform improvements. Additional funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation supported the initial development of the website, the addition of important standards, assessments, and infant/toddler content to the site. Work to improve accessibility features and activities focused on accommodations for children with disabilities is ongoing.


    The learning trajectories of early math, as conceptualized by Drs. Sarama and Clements have been incorporated in various educational standards, assessments, curricula, and reports such as those developed by the National Research Council. While recognized widely for the extensive research and development supporting learning trajectories, this project focused on evaluating and validating them. The Evaluating the Efficacy of Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics was a national research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) that evaluated the usefulness of learning trajectories for improving student achievement in early math. Marsico Institute investigated the extent to which the learning trajectories approach was effective in comparison to other approaches and in what ways learning trajectories could be used to best support young children's learning. Visit the Learning Trajectories website to learn more.


    How do children think and learn about geometric measurement—length, area, and volume? Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research and development project focused on the learning and teaching of measurement in early and elementary education. Conducted in collaboration with Jeffrey Barrett and Craig Cullen from Illinois State University, Marsico Institute developed and tested research-based developmental progressions—descriptions of the levels of thinking children move through as they learn— in three areas of measurement across a seven-year span. These developmental progressions including instructional activities and teaching strategies can be found on the Learning Trajectories website.


    “Scaling Up TRIAD: Teaching Early Mathematics for Understanding with Trajectories and Technologies" is the third of a sequence of rigorous evaluations of a model of scaling up successful interventions for early math. This project focused on math achievement in young children through high-quality implementation of the "Building Blocks" math curriculum, with all aspects of the curriculum–content, pedagogy, technology, and assessments–based on a common core of learning trajectories. A particularly challenging educational and theoretical issue is scaling up educational programs across a multitude of diverse populations and contexts in the early childhood system in the U.S., while avoiding the dilution and pollution that usually plagues such efforts to achieve broad success. With previous funding, Drs. Sarama and Clements created a research-based model to meet this challenge in the area of mathematics, with the intent to generalize the model to other subject areas and age groups. Results of the study indicated high levels of fidelity of implementation resulting in consistently higher scores in the intervention classes on the observation instrument and statistically significant and substantially greater gains in children's mathematics, again with substantial effect sizes in preschool and continuing into kindergarten and 1st grade. These relationships were stronger in the "Follow Through" condition in which Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers also received professional development. For more information, see project webpage here.