Fyfe’s interest in education psychology sprouted during her undergraduate years at Notre Dame. “I joined a lab and it sort of changed the trajectory of my career,” she said. “I didn’t know this sort of research existed in psychology.” She engaged with topics in numerical representation, reasoning, and problem solving, but for Fyfe, the lab environment was just as important as the research itself. “I was treated like an independent thinker and somebody who has the capacity to do research. I told my advisor ‘I love what you do and I want to do that; I think I can.’”
Since 2016, Fyfe has been fulfilling that goal at IU. She is committed to creating a lab environment where students can thrive, no matter their prior exposure to research. Postdocs, graduate students, undergrads, and high school students alike all have the opportunity to “build up their skills and start dialogues with other students,” part of what makes the LEAD lab so special.
As for the research itself, families come into the LEAD lab to participate in studies about how children identify and create patterns, what role feedback plays in learning, and how using concrete objects helps children understand abstract concepts. Of all the topics Fyfe studies, there is one that she returns to time and time again. “We study children’s knowledge of the equal sign a lot,” she said with a laugh. “There are many ways to represent this idea of ‘equal’. We ask: How do those different representations change learning? Are they affording different kinds of mistakes or successes?”
Generally, explained Fyfe, children understand the meaning of the equal sign in one of two ways. The first is relational. This group sees the equal sign as relating two things to each other: showing that the quantity on one side of the equal sign has the same value as the quantity on the other.
The second is operational. For the learners in this group, the equal sign tells you to do something specific: ‘find the answer’ or ‘add the numbers you see on the left side.’
While these two ways of understanding may seem identical for, say, simple arithmetic problems, the operational group tends to have more trouble when problems aren’t in the a + b = c format that they have learned to expect.
How did these two groups emerge? Fyfe is a proponent of the “change resistant theory,” which some of her collaborators have developed and she has helped test in different ways. She explained the idea with a familiar example: “In elementary school, you were probably given sheets filled with simple arithmetic problems. There were dozens of problems on those sheets, all organized in the exact same way with the equal sign at the end.”
This enforces an operational way of thinking because students learn to associate the equal sign as the place where they should put their answer. This idea, “becomes resistant to change because it’s become entrenched with their exposure,” described Fyfe. Children who have been taught the meaning of the equal sign in more varied ways, by balancing concrete objects or with different types of arithmetic practice, for example, may have an easier time developing a relational understanding of its meaning.
It goes without saying that Fyfe’s research has implications for education policy. “Our goal is to have some sort of translational impact,” she reflected. The group’s research on children’s understanding of the equal sign, for example, could be used to design lesson plans that encourage a relational understanding.
But Fyfe rightly noted she isn’t the only one studying the science of learning. Education researchers, math teachers, math coaches, curricular designers, and more all have an idea of how to best teach mathematics. A study published by the LEAD lab won’t change math education overnight, but it may get the ball rolling.
The Association for Psychological Science certainly thinks so. Fyfe was named a recipient of the Janet Taylor Spence award in February 2023 for her “transformative early career contributions to psychological science.” She is one of six awardees from institutions across the country from a wide range of research topics.
For Fyfe, the award is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of her whole lab group. “It’s always a humbling experience to win an award,” she said. “Winners of awards win because of their giant support networks.” She looks forward to attending the 2023 APS Annual Convention to receive her award and hear from other psychology and learning researchers.