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Finding the Beat Helps Students Learn Fractions, Study Says

An innovative, hands-on curriculum that combines music and math may help younger students learn how to do fractions, according to a new study.

The music-based program, Academic Music, uses rhythm to tackle fractions--a math concept that is fundamental to higher math, but one that students can find difficult to grasp. Co-designed by San Francisco State University researchers, the program includes 12 lessons designed to be taught by regular classroom teachers, according to the university's website.

California 3rd-graders who participated in the program learned how to do fractions through clapping, drumming, chanting and using music notation. They then scored "significantly higher" on math tests than peers who received regular instruction, researchers found.

"If students don't understand fractions early on, they often struggle with algebra and mathematical reasoning later in their schooling," Susan Courey, an assistant professor of special education, said in a website report. "We have designed a method that uses gestures and symbols to help children understand parts of a whole and learn the academic language of math."

The study, co-authored by Courey and music teacher Endre Balogh, examined 67 students at an elementary school in the San Francisco Bay area. According to the report, half of the students participated in the music-based program for six weeks and the others received the school's regular math instruction.

The kids who had the music-based lessons scored 50 percent higher on a fraction test at the end of the six weeks when compared with those who had the regular instruction, the report said.

Courey and Balogh developed the program, using "the Kodaly method, a Hungarian approach to music education that includes movement, songs and nicknames for musical notes, such as 'ta-ah' for a half note," according to the report.

Students were taught to connect the value of musical notes, such as half notes, to their equivalent fraction size, and then used the music skills to learn the time value of the notes. The kids learned "to add and subtract fractions by completing work sheets, in which they draw musical notes on sheet music, ensuring the notes add up to four beats in each bar or measure."

Courey is planning to publish the curriculum materials, which can be used by regular teachers without the help of music teachers.

"We're suggesting that teachers put music in their arsenal of tools for teaching math," Courey said. "It's fun, it doesn't cost a lot, and it keeps music in the classroom."

The study was published Thursday online in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics.

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