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UTA math professor awarded NSF grant to develop new methods of measuring mathematical problem solving

Thursday, September 24, 2015 • Media Contact: Bridget Lewis

A University of Texas at Arlington math researcher wants to better understand the mathematical problem-solving skills that students need to excel in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.


James Epperson, an associate professor of mathematics in the UT Arlington College of Science, will use a $270,518 National Science Foundation grant to develop methods to better recognize capacity in mathematical problem solving needed for success in foundational mathematics courses for STEM.

Although mathematicians and mathematics educators can identify prerequisite skills and conceptual knowledge needed for courses such as calculus, little is understood about the mathematical problem-solving capacity students must develop to successfully apply mathematical knowledge from prior courses to the learning of the mathematics central to their scientific field of study.

The research, in collaboration with Kathryn Rhoads, co-principal investigator and visiting assistant professor of mathematics, “will provide important and efficient tools that separate skills, procedural knowledge and conceptual knowledge gained in foundational mathematics courses from the mathematical problem-solving levels needed to leverage this mathematical knowledge in future courses and persist in STEM fields,” Epperson said.

This work builds upon Epperson’s research with mathematics doctoral student Cavender Campbell, who will be supported by the NSF funding.

Methods for determining students’ mathematical problem-solving skills typically involve labor- and time-intensive procedures such as task-based interviews and review of student work using detailed scoring rubrics.  

The new research aims to develop and validate high-quality assessment items in mathematical problem solving that can be machine scored—an area of mathematics competency that has never been assessed in this manner.

Epperson added: “Further, this work may lead to a novel way to influence course redesign in mathematics to meet (or better) student learning outcomes, establish different measures for determining readiness for gateway mathematics courses and determine baselines on non-procedurally-based skills needed to persist in a STEM major.”  

Jianzhong Su, chair of the Department of Mathematics, applauded the research of Epperson, Rhoads and Campbell, calling it a great example of collaboration between faculty and students, and an example of the excellence that resides within UTA’s Department of Mathematics. 

“Dr. Epperson’s grant is a new milestone in our successful efforts in increasing student success rate in gateway mathematics courses,” Su said. He noted that since 2012, the Mathematics Department has launched a great effort in creating a Mathematics Learning Resource Center.

“The National Science Foundation project supports a data-driven scientific discovery on UTA’s progress in student success in freshman mathematics courses, and the research by Dr. Epperson and Dr. Rhoads has a profound impact in mathematics education research and student success at UT Arlington,” Su said.

About the College of Science

The UT Arlington College of Science is addressing the nation’s pressing need for a larger and better-prepared STEM workforce. The college has 42 undergraduate and graduate degree offerings in six departments. It’s equipping future leaders in science through award-winning classroom teaching and lab training. The college’s internationally acclaimed faculty is leading the way in innovative research and is finding solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems. Visit to learn more about how the College of Science is changing the world through education and research.

About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 51,000 students in campus-based and online degree programs and is the second-largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as one of the 20 fastest-growing public research universities in the nation in 2014. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. The University is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is ranked as a “Best for Vets” college by Military Times magazine. Visit to learn more, and find UT Arlington rankings and recognition at