Research News

UW-Madison's Knuth, Stephens co-author early algebra report for Kappan Magazine

March 10, 2016

UW-Madison's Eric Knuth and Ana Stephens recently co-authored a report for the March issue of Kappan Magazine headlined, “Build an early foundation for algebra success.”

Knuth is a professor of mathematics education with the No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Stephens is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Eric Knuth
The report explores early algebra as an important gatekeeper to success in the secondary grades and almost every avenue in the job market and schooling.

The report notes: “Why algebra? Scholars say algebra is the linchpin to success in mathematics because of its foundational role in all areas of mathematics.”

Research has shown that early algebra has provided important evidence on children's ability to think algebraically. Early algebra allows children to develop critical algebraic thinking skills that are essential in the secondary grades. 

The report continues: “Early algebra does not mean algebra earlier ...  it means laying a foundation for developing understanding of such content by building elementary students’ natural, informal intuitions about patterns, relationships, and structure into formalized ways of mathematical thinking. Early algebra does not mean replacing traditional arithmetic content with algebra content. Instead, it means extending the arithmetic typically taught in elementary school so that young children learn to see and reason with its underlying structure and properties and develop the ability to identify, describe, and analyze how quantities vary in relation to each."


Ana Stephens
The report identifies three critical ways to promote success in ​the subject:

• The ability to use variables to represent unknowns or varying quantities is critical to success in algebra.

• A core understanding critical to student success in algebra is that the equal sign represents a relation between two equivalent quantities.

• Student success in algebra also requires an ability to detect and generate patterns and to generalize those patterns symbolically.

The report concludes: "The promise of early algebra to increase student success in algebra and, ultimately, greater access to educational and employment opportunities, makes it a worthwhile investment." 

To learn more, check out the full report here.