I love mathematics and helping students to believe in their abilities to learn and even enjoy mathematics. 

As I enter my fifth semester of my Ed.D in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia, it’s time to narrow my focus for my dissertation project. Combining my passions for the Learning Transfer Mental Model, secondary mathematics, and students’ self-efficacy led me to studying the student experience both with the Learning Transfer Mental Model specifically and the role self-efficacy plays when students attempt to transfer (apply their learning) to new problems in mathematics. 

Below is my initial draft of what I’m thinking at this point. 

Purpose: Explore and better understand how students experience transfer when learning is designed with the Learning Transfer Mental Model and look at the role self-efficacy plays in this process. 

Research Questions:

1. How do students approach transfer tasks when receiving instruction designed with the Learning Transfer Mental Model?

2. What is the role of students’ self-efficacy in transferring learning to novel tasks in mathematics?

Methodology: Qualitative, specifically a Case Study (with possibly some quantitative components) 

Population: High school math students who have typically struggled in mathematics or have selected not to take advanced mathematics courses.

Once I had these ideas articulated, it became a sense of relief. I have my, so to speak, “blinders on” and a more defined focus. 

Throughout this process, Julie Stern has been an excellent companion to bounce ideas around, share valuable research and insight from her decade+ of experience, and (like my professors) help me focus and clarify. Once I had a general trajectory defined, I went to Julie to get ideas from her about a third committee member. Jokingly, I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if John Hattie was my third member?” Julie said, “I’ll ask him. Efficacy, transfer, and mathematics, he’s perfect for this project.” I laughed and agreed to Julie sending an email to Professor Hattie, figuring the probability of him saying yes might be 5%. Still, maybe he would give a few articles and some tips to help out. 

Never did I think he would say yes, and y’all, he did! Professor Hattie agreed to be a “supporter, critic, and suggester” throughout the process! At this point, I’m both ecstatic and thinking, “oh gosh, he’s going to read my writing and see my thoughts. They better be up to snuff.” 

In that first email exchange, Professor Hattie shared some fascinating work by his ‘mate’ Ference Marton (find the articles here and here) and some initial feedback on my ideas. He recommended starting with a younger group of students, or possibly multiple groups of students, rather than my original idea of twelfth-grade students. The rationale was seniors’ self-efficacy toward mathematics is probably a bit more solidified than a younger group because they’re at the end of their K-12 journey.

I pondered this and discussed the idea with the secondary math specialist in my school district. We discussed another group of students who could use a boost of self-efficacy in mathematics and decided that ninth graders in Foundations of Algebra would be perfect. This class has a bit more freedom in pacing and curriculum, which may help the teacher feel comfortable trying new ideas without the stress over an end-of-year test. We hope to help these students see themselves as mathematicians and improve their mathematics trajectory while in high school. I can’t wait to see what happens!

With this once-in-a-lifetime experience to have Professor Hattie and my other amazing professors guiding my journey, I decided to share my experiences with the world, in the hope this helps other mathematics teachers improve their students’ self-efficacy and transfer. I’ll share the ups and downs, lessons learned, and most importantly, the gist of advice I receive from my panel of advisors. 

My next steps are to continue reading, create a literature review matrix, outline my literature review, and have a solid draft by the end of the semester. I’ll continue to share my processes, stumbles, and thoughts along the way and hope you’ll join me. I am ecstatic about my committee with Dr. Arrington, Dr. Pope, and Dr. Hattie and ready to absorb all of their advice and wisdom over the next two years. I’m also blessed to have such fantastic support from Julie and my amazing Learning That Transfers teammates, district colleagues, and my biggest supporter — my wonderful husband, who is also a teacher. 

P.S. If you have any dissertation tips or research aligned with my ideas, please share in the comments below or email me: kbf.duncan@gmail.com