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Jinfa Cai conducts research into the teaching and learning of mathematics, including a long-running cross-cultural project in which he examines differences and similarities between students in the United States and in China.
Jinfa Cai, professor of mathematical sciences with a joint appointment in the School of Education
at the University of Delaware, has been named a fellow of the American
Educational Research Association (AERA), which cited his “notable and
sustained research achievements” in the field of mathematics education.
Cai was one of 22 scholars selected as 2016 fellows of the association,
which is the largest national interdisciplinary research association
devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. The new
fellows will be inducted at the AERA annual meeting in April in
“We are delighted to honor these 22 scholars for their contributions
to education research and for their dedication to the field,” Felice J.
Levine, AERA’s executive director, said. “[They] exemplify the highest
standards of excellence through accomplishment, professionalism and
A member of the UD faculty since 1996, Cai conducts two lines of
research into the teaching and learning of mathematics. One line of
research consists of cross-cultural studies examining differences and
similarities between American and Chinese students. He said he has a
personal interest in that cross-cultural work.
“When I came to the United States [for doctoral studies at the
University of Pittsburgh], I visited math classes,” Cai said. “My
observation was somewhat different from what I expected based on studies
that show students in the United States don’t perform well in math
compared to students in many other countries. It made me want to
The result has been a long-running research project in which Cai
examines students’ mathematical thinking and reasoning in various tasks
in both nations. He has found that Chinese students do much better than
U.S. students on tasks learned in school, while U.S. students perform
equally well or even better than Chinese students on tasks that are not
routinely learned, such as those asking students to generate their own
mathematical problems to solve.
Cai has conducted a series of follow-up studies to understand the
possible reasons for the differences in U.S. and Chinese students’
mathematical thinking. He thinks that teachers in both countries might
learn from these findings and, for example, start spending more
instructional time on the areas of relative weakness and less on the
areas where students already do well.
“It’s hard to transfer lessons from one culture to another, but I think we can learn a lot from each other,” he said.
Cai’s other line of research has involved following a group of U.S.
students from grades six through 12 and assessing the results of various
approaches to teaching math.
The project began in 2005 when the National Science Foundation (NSF)
awarded a $2.4 million grant for Cai and colleagues to investigate
whether using a problem-based mathematics curriculum called the
Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) improved the results for middle
school students learning algebra. The NSF awarded an additional $1.5
million grant in 2010 to extend the study to high school.
After following the same students for seven years, Cai said he found
positive effects of the curriculum on problem-solving skills, without
sacrificing the kinds of basic math skills assessed through state
testing. And those benefits continued as the students went through high
school, showing the long-lasting effects of using a particular
curriculum and the importance of continuing research for years after a
curriculum is first implemented.
“This is the only longitudinal project in mathematics education
research that has examined the effect of a curriculum on students’
learning beyond the grade band in which the curriculum was used,” Cai
said. “The persistence of the CMP students’ advantages on some measures
into high school is quite important.”
In addition to his research and teaching, Cai began serving last year as editor of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME), the premier research journal in the field. His editorship will continue through 2020.
JRME advances the frontiers of mathematics education by
disseminating the highest quality research on the learning and teaching
of mathematics at all levels, from preschool through college. The work
it has published over the past several decades has helped to guide
research, foster innovations in practice and inform policy debates and
Cai also is in the final stage of editing a research compendium in
mathematics education, which involves nearly 100 scholars worldwide and
nearly 3,000 manuscript pages, to be published later this year.
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