How young children view mathematical representations: a study using eye-tracking technology

Authors: Bolden, D., Barmby, P., Raine, S., Gardner, M. (2015)

It has been shown that mathematical representations can aid children’s understanding of mathematical concepts but that children can sometimes have difficulty in interpreting them correctly. New advances in eye-tracking technology can help in this respect because it allows data to be gathered concerning children’s focus of attention and so indicate on what aspects of the representations they are focussing. However, recent eye-tracking technology has not been used to any great degree in investigating the way children view and interpret mathematical representations. Purpose: This research explored the use of new advances in eye-tracking technology in investigating how young children view and interpret mathematical representations of multiplication. Sample: Nine Year 5 children (four boys, five girls, aged 9–10 years of age) from a local primary (elementary) school in the North-East of England were asked to complete the test during school time. The children represented a range of attainment levels across the mathematical domain (three higher-, three middle- and three lowerattaining children) and were selected accordingly by their class teacher. We recognise that this study was only based on a small sample of children, however, this number still allowed us to make meaningful comparisons in particular between the different types of representations presented.

Design and methods

The study consisted of each child looking at 18 static slides, one after the other, with each slide presenting a symbolic and a picture representation of multiplication problems. The data that was captured by the eye tracker and recorded was then analysed quantitatively (e.g. time on each slide, time on each area of interest specified within the software) and qualitatively (video recordings of each child’s gaze trajectory during each representation was carried out, thereby allowing a categorisation of the different approaches adopted) using MangoldVision software.


The study showed that (a) the particular form of the number line representation used in this study was less successful than the other picture representations used (equal groups, array) in promoting multiplicative thinking in children, and (b) the success of children to think multiplicatively with the ‘groups’ and the array representation was related to their general mathematics attainment levels.


These findings have implications for teacher practice in that teachers need to be clear about the possible drawbacks of particular representations. Even in using more successful representations, for lower-attaining children, the progression in their understanding of the representation needs to be taken into account by the teacher. The study also highlighted that the eye-tracking technology does have some limitations but is useful in investigating young children’s focus of attention whilst undertaking a mathematics assessment task.

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