This dissertation report follows a three-paper format, with each paper having a different but related focus. In Paper 1 I discuss conceptual analysis of mathematical ideas relative to its place within cognitive learning theories and research studies. In particular, I highlight specific ways mathematics education research uses conceptual analysis and discuss the implications of these uses for interpreting and leveraging results to produce empirically tested learning trajectories. From my summary and analysis I develop two recommendations for the cognitive researchers developing empirically supported learning trajectories. (1) A researcher should frame his/her work, and analyze others’ work, within the researcher’s image of a broadly coherent trajectory for student learning and (2) that the field should work towards a common understanding for the meaning of a hypothetical learning trajectory.
In Paper 2 I argue that prior research in online learning has tested the impact of online courses on measures such as student retention rates, satisfaction scores, and GPA but that research is needed to describe the meanings students construct for mathematical ideas researchers have identified as critical to their success in future math courses and other STEM fields. This paper discusses the need for a new focus in studying online mathematics learning and calls for cognitive researchers to begin developing a productive methodology for examining the meanings students construct while engaged in online lessons.
Paper 3 describes the online Precalculus course intervention we designed around measurement imagery and quantitative reasoning as themes that unite topics across units. I report results relative to the meanings students developed for exponential functions and related ideas (such as percent change and growth factors) while working through lessons in the intervention. I provide a conceptual analysis guiding its design and discuss pre-test and pre-interview results, post-test and post-interview results, and observations from student behaviors while interacting with lessons. I demonstrate that the targeted meanings can be productive for students, show common unproductive meanings students possess as they enter Precalculus, highlight challenges and opportunities in teaching and learning in the online environment, and discuss needed adaptations to the intervention and future research opportunities informed by my results.