PsychologiCALL

On number line estimation and learning disability, with Dr Vic Simms

April 28, 2020 SalvesenResearch Season 1 Episode 1
PsychologiCALL
On number line estimation and learning disability, with Dr Vic Simms
Show Notes Transcript

Dr Vic Simms is a developmental psychologist at Ulster University who specialises in cognitive development, specifically mathematical thinking. During this podcast she chats to Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh about a piece of work looking at mathematics skills in individuals with Williams Syndrome and Down Syndrome.

You can follow Vic on twitter here.

This is the paper discussed in this episode:
Simms, V., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Ranzato, E., & Van Herwegen, J. (2020). Understanding Number Line Estimation in Williams Syndrome and Down Syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 50(2), 583-591.

Sue:

[Podcast jingle] [ringtone] Hello? Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great. I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay. Here I go. So! Hi, I'm Sue and I'm from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh. We wanted to do something for all the practitioners, and parents, and students, who are stuck at home, but who still want to be developing their knowledge, even during the lockdown. With lots of folks homeschooling and our usual family routines disrupted, it feels like Developmental Psychology is a good topic right now, and I'm a developmental psychologist. So what we're doing is short phone calls with psychologists who study learning and development in children and young people. And this is the first one. So today's PsychologiCALL is with Vic Simms from Ulster University, and she's going to talk to me about a paper with the title "Understanding number line estimation in Williams syndrome and Down syndrome". Hello Vic! How are you?

Vic:

Hello! Uh, I'm great, yes, thank you! Yes, um, greetings from a very strangely sunny , uh , Ulster!

Sue:

Oh, lovely. Yeah, we've got sunny weather in Edinburgh too. So that's good. Um, so tell me, what was it that you discovered when you were doing this bit of research that we're talking about today?

Vic:

So I suppose I have been obsessed with , um, mathematical development for quite a long time. And my first post-doctoral position in 2008 , looked at a task called the number line estimation task. Um , it's a really simple task to think about. So just imagine right now Sue, I'm asking you to think about the numbers from zero to a hundred, and you're probably thinking that they go from left to right, and , and with the big numbers on the right hand side and the little numbers on the left-hand side. And what's been really interesting about loads of research that we've done as a group, and also other people across the world is that kids' performance on being able to position numbers on that number line, so estimate where numbers go on that number line seems to be related to their mathematical ability. And one of the things that people thought about was this is like a k-, kind of like a direct lens into how people represented number in their mind. So using this task was like an instant snapshot of how people stored number in their brain. And we kind of thought that it couldn't be that simple because when we're asking people to estimate the position on a number line, they're having to make a physical mark on a , on a number line, they're having to do proportion-, proportional thinking, all of these types of things. So we were really fascinated by some of the research that was coming out suggesting that , um , the relationship between number line estimation and mathematical ability might be mediated, or it might be confounded by some other skills, such as visuospatial processing. And that's where, um a little grant opportunity came my way with, um, Jo Van Herwegen, and the late great Annette Karmiloff-Smith. Um, because we knew that individuals with Williams syndrome are... typically have quite poor visual spatial processing skills. And we thought we could ask quite a theoretically grounded question about , um , their performance on a number line estimation task. So that was kind of the motivation for doing this study, to understand "are there very kind of general cognitive skills that might impact people's performance to do number line estimation , and is that related to mathematical abilities?" Um, and then at the same time, we were able to look at a group of individuals with Down syndrome, and we know that individuals with down syndrome have um , uh, good-, relatively good visuospatial skills, but might have a little bit more problems with kind of fluency, verbal fluency. So it was a really interesting comparison study to do for a theoretical psychologist, a developmental psychologist who's really interested in theory, but also in a practical sense as well.

Sue:

Okay so... So if I've understood correctly then...

Vic:

Yeah.

Sue:

...You're trying to kind of separate out with this task what part of it is about how good you are at maths...

Vic:

Yeah.

Sue:

... and what part of it is about how good you are at more general visiospatial things like picturing things in your head , um , estimating kind of sizes and lengths of things. Is that, is that right?

Vic:

Yeah. Absolutely, yes. So we have , um , we can have a really interesting, very clearly , um, hypothesis-driven study that says, well actually, if individuals who have poor visualspatial skills, so being able to, you know, a typical task of visual spatial processing might be , uh , um , design copying, so asking children, young people, adults to copy some pictures that kind of helps us understand their visual spatial processing, we might be able to parse that out of their performance. So can we work out in number line estimation, how much, how much is important... How important is visual spatial processing? How important is it with your familiarity with just numbers? You know, your ability to count forwards and backwards. So we can start to really understand what that task is measuring, but we also might understand how we could help people improve their performance, um, in some mathematical tasks. And I think the really exciting thing about the paper that we published, um, this was at the end of last year, is that , um , actually the comparative or the relative strengths of individuals with Williams syndrome, so their fluency with numbers, is the thing that predicts their , their performance in the number line estimation task , and individuals with Down syndrome, their relative strength with

Sue:

Oh, that's so nice! So... So different groups of children are drawing on different kinds of strengths to achieve the same task.

Vic:

Yeah! Absolutely. And I think that that's a really important and a positive message to be able to take some-, from some of the research that maybe parents and practitioners hear kind of, you know, the kind of "these are difficulties, these are difficulties", but we're saying actually relative strengths are the things that we could maybe tap into to , to aid performance. Um , on that's, that kind of is also something that we like to think about as well. Um we , um... In some of our research with , um , people like Camilla Gilmore and Sam Johnson we've been looking a lot at children who are born very pre-term. And again, we kind of try and think about, well, what are the relative strengths that these children might have? Or how can we change the environment around them to help support their, their achievements or their performance in certain types of tasks. So taking a slightly different spin on things, um, and trying to think about the more positive aspects to support learning rather than always thinking about the difficulties.

Sue:

That's lovely. So, so before we get onto thinking a little bit more about what we can learn from it, can you just tell me a bit about how you did the study? Did you sit down face to face with these , uh , children and young people? Um, did they have a number line in front of them or was it a computer task? Tell me some...

Vic:

Yeah. So this is part of a study funded by the British Academy. These are quite small grants, but they get a lot of bang for their buck I think by funding these projects. And so we had a really lovely , uh , researcher, Erica Ranzato, who worked on the project. And she did one-to-one assessments with , um , individuals who have Williams syndrome, Down syndrome, and then a very broad range of age groups of children and adults, so that we could have comparison groups. Um... The assessments were one-to- one, and one of the tasks that they did was the number line estimation task, and that was done just on paper and pencil. Um... We have this task now on an iPad. Um , that's that's okay, but sometimes, um, the measurements, their can be measurement issues because you can't get the precision of a lovely, finely drawn pencil mark on a page, while , um, when we're using the iPad, it can be a bit, a bit messier. So we've had to use the paper and pencil to mea- , uh , paper and pencil task for this study. Uh , but the young people , uh, children on adults did a number of other tasks that I think someone else might speak too about , uh , at another time during , uh, your, your little chats?

Sue:

I think they might, that's right, yeah. [Laughs] Um, and so, so you're asking them to mark on the line, according to a number that you've given them, and then you're literally just measuring how accurately they managed to do that?

Vic:

Yes. So what we do is this, this is , uh , bringing developmental psychology, right down to the first principles [laughs] where we , um , use a lot of paper , um , and give individuals blank number lines, and we ask them to position the number that we ask them on the number line on each number has a separate number line. So you can't use your last , um , estimation to help predict your next estimation. And , um , that's really important because we want people to think about each number as a novel entity. Um, then what you have to do, as a research assistant I had to do this on a longitudinal study , uh , with maybe about five, it must've been 500 participants effectively, and you measure the distance from the zero point to where that estimation is, and then we can work out how accurate, um the person's estimation is in comparison to where the actual position of the numbers . There's quite a lot of calculations involved, but it means that we can do some nice, quite simple statistical analysis to work out the amount of error in estimation and also how, um, how spread out the numbers are across the number line. And what we typically see is children show a profile where they spread the small numbers out, very, very, very large spaces between them, um , and then they squash all the big numbers together at the very end. So we would describe that as a logarithmic distribution. Um... And what you see with development is that they become a nice linear distribution. So individuals become better at being able to space those numbers across the line evenly and with age and development.

Sue:

Um , and you obviously wanted to capture visual spatial skills as well, given your hypothesis...

Vic:

Yeah.

Sue:

So... Did you use, can you maybe just give me an example of one thing you use to measure that?

Vic:

Yes. So in this study we just used a very well-known kind of block design tasks. So people are given some images and they have to try and recreate the images with the manipulatives or the little blocks that they're given. So we have used a variety of different visual, spatial tasks in a number of different studies when we've been looking at mathematics, and this seems to be a good task that seems to relate quite highly with mathematical skills. So being able to think about an image and recreate it nearly in your mental space , um , and then be able to produce something at the end is a good way to measure those visual spatial skills. But we totally recognize there are multiple ways to be able to assess visual spatial skills. It's a really complex area of research. And lots people, that is their sole focus, is looking at visual spatial processing. And I suppose, as someone who's interested in mathematical cognition, we look for the tasks that we see that perform well. Um , and , uh, we choose out of the battery of tests , um , in terms of what we would want to be able to assess.

Sue:

So , um, in terms of what we can learn from this , right? So , um, I love this idea that what you're drawing out is that these children are, I guess, relatively instinctively leaning on the things that they do well to help them in this task...

Vic:

Yeah.

Sue:

Are there ways that maybe as parents or teachers, we can encourage that? Is that something that you would say would be a recommendation from the work?

Vic:

Yeah, so I think one of the important things about mathematical development is it's highly impacted by our emotions and our assets. And we know this from multiple other studies where we know that anxiety, and we have... There's a specific types of anxiety called mathematical anxiety, can have a really serious impact on how we perform with , um, with numbers. And so I think that being able to reassure children or young people that they're , they're trying very hard and they're doing as well as they possibly can. It's one thing that it can come from you that we're encouraging people to use their strengths and the approach that they find is successful for them. We know that children who are , um , flexible , um , in the strategies that they use in mathematics. So, you know , your approach, even a simple addition problem, there's always multiple ways that you can do that. Children who show that flexible approach to being able to solve a problem are generally better at much more complex mathematics. And that, again, may tell us something about being able to rely on your strengths because you know how to solve the problem, and you're able to adapt the strategies that you use to solve that problem. So I think from the piece of research, this piece of research specifically around Williams syndrome and Down syndrome individuals, and they're doing this number line task, I think that the key message for us was that the reliance on these kinds of relative strengths is really important. But also I think really reassuringly from this paper, there's two things I think I really am quite delighted by, one is that we were able to replicate a paper that had been done by a group, an Italian group um, a number of years ago, that suggested when you use a developmentally appropriate measure, um individuals with Down syndrome were performing pretty much the same as their mental age group peers. I think that's important because you don't really see loads of replication papers in this area of research, and that, I think that's first thing that I'm really, really delighted that we were able to replicate a finding. I think that's very important, um so scientific rigor. Um, but the second thing I suppose as well is that , um, there had been , um , an, an idea that , um, individuals with Williams syndrome were actually performing significantly poorer than their mental age match peers on this number line estimation task. And that had been using a number line that was really large, zero to a thousand , a number line, which is kind of outside of the familiarity brackets of individuals with Williams syndrome. But when we drop down and use a number line that's developmentally appropriate, we see that there... That this group of individuals is performing similarly to their mental age match peers. And I think that that is also really important that , um , we can see that maybe mathematics... um... this number line task is not something of a specific difficulty for individuals with Williams syndrome. So there are two, I think , important points that come from this paper . Um, and also then, more broadly for myself who I'm just interested in the number line estimation task, and does this have like a kind of... Are we able to look directly into the mind's eye through this task? And I think this re-, piece of research says "no absolutely not", because you're relying on so many other different skills to be able to do this task. And I think for me it was a paper that I feel really proud to have contributed to because it's askin-, answering practical questions, but also broader methodological and theoretical question.

Sue:

Yeah, I think that's such a strength of the study actually. And I really agree. It's so nice when you hit that sweet spot where you've got something interesting to say about the theory as well as about the kind of real life experience.

Vic:

Yeah. And I think, you know, as developmental psychologists , um, we are motivated by multiple things, aren't we, you know , um, and I think, you know, I'm a theoretical scientist at heart, but I really want my work to have practical applications because I think that's really, really important. And I don't think I've necessarily had a paper where I feel I've been able to pull those two things together so neatly, as in this paper. So it's been really fulfilling. And the other thing is, I think, um, Annette Karmiloff-Smith unfortunately passed away, you know , at the beginning actually of this , um, this project. And she had quite , um, huge questions to ask around , um, you know, cross syndrome comparisons, and mathematics skills... And, you know, she obviously talked about much more broad issues of mathematics, but I think it was really lovely to be able to test some of the questions that she had been asking and , um , and be able to kind of carry on with that , that type of work. So I feel really privileged to be part of this research team.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely. And to anyone listening, who's kind of interested in psychology, then the writings of Annette Karmiloff-Smith are just so highly- ...

Vic:

Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, the, her beautiful, beautiful papers around neuro constructivism and, you know , her really broad, theoretical contributions, but then as well, her, her kind of real insight and passion , um , for families with children who may have developmental disorders, or more broadly. Um, and I just think what an amazing person and what an amazing contributions to developmental psychology in the UK and internationally.

Sue:

Yeah, absolutely. Um, so just one final question then thinking about , um, any early career researchers or students who might be listening, is there anything that you want to say to them , um, in this , uh, trying time? [Laughs] Any words of wisdom?

Vic:

[ Laughs] It's a big, that's a big ask, Sue!

Sue:

[Laughs]

Vic:

I think... Um.... It , look... Early career researchers, so I , I was a post-doc for six years. Um , and it was a frustrating time because you were always on the lookout for the next post and it can be quite difficult. I, my husband and I commuted between Scotland and Northern Ireland and things like that. But the time that I had to read and think is something that I know I will never get back. Um , I know that times at this moment, time are hectic and crazy, but we have got a slightly enforced um, slowing down. The pace of research has to slow down, especially if we're developmental psychologists, you know, I, you know, I'm thinking we could be opportunistic and try and do lots of research, you know , doing, I don't know, assessing children through Zoom and things like that. But how real are these measures that we're taking during a time where we've got huge amounts of parental stress, kids are not seeing their friends, all of these things we have to put in context . So I think having that little bit of time to sit and think is really important. And I think that actually, you know , this paper, this paper for me, um is- , has taken... [Laughs] ...has been 12 years in the making, because really this work started in 2008, when I first started my first postdoc , I'm still doing this type of work now. And I think that that shows us that sometimes our thoughts have to distill, and that trying to take some time to reflect on what we're doing resear-, why we're doing research, and what we are really, really interested in is really important. Especially at the start of your career. I did a post-doc, um, in the middle of my postdoc in an area of research that I don't continue. I haven't continued to publish in , but I learned unbelievable skills in terms of experimental psychology from, I worked with Teresa McCormack at Queen's University. Um... Those times, I think are times when we can really reflect on broader developmental issues. We can think about theory. We can think about how these things fit together in a system of development. And I think that this is really horrible for PhD students. And this is really horrible for early career researchers, because you feel like your projects have had a massive brake pedal slammed down, but actually trying to think and think bigger thoughts taking this opportunity, even if it's only like 20 minutes, because I, I recognize that there's, you know , stressful and there's not loads of time to think, but trying to use this time as a period of reflection to think about how your work might fit into a bigger picture is probably a kind of something that we may not have the opportunity to do again, once the brake pedals off again, and we fly back into our projects . So maybe seeing this as a time to , to think a little bit deeper might be a good opportunity.

Sue:

Ah, perfect words of wisdom! Thank you!

Vic:

[Laughs] No problem! I will try and do that myself, obviously! [Laughs].

Sue:

It's easier giving advice than taking it, isn't it? [Laughs]

Vic:

[Laughs] Absolutely! Absolutely!

Sue:

So I'm going to thank you so much for giving me a bit of your time to do our first ever PsychologiCALL and , um, anyone who's listening, if you want to find out more about Vic's work and about what we talked about today, then there will be links on the podcast page at ed.ac.uk/salvesen-research. So thank you so much Vic! And bye!

Vic:

Thank you for having me. Thanks, bye! [ringtone]

Sue:

Okay we did it! I thought that went quite smoothly! [Podcast jingle]