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Benefits of music on math skills become focus of study at Indiana State

November 26, 2014

Plenty of research exists to show the benefits of music instruction on math skills, but why there's a correlation remains a mystery.

It's a conundrum that a pair of Indiana State University educators is working to solve. "We don't know why because to fully study it would require taking a group of kids and saying they can never have music instruction, which we can't do," said Caitlin Brez, assistant professor of psychology and the lead co-investigator whose research interests are in how infants and children learn about numbers and math. "But we know children who receive music instruction have better math, executive functioning and spatial skills.

The university awarded Brez and Petra Nyendick, director of the Community School of the Arts at Indiana State, an internal grant ¬ under a program aimed at enhancing the overall competitiveness of external grant proposals. The grant provided $10,000 to offer African drumming and Fusion Theater during the fall and spring semesters. Funds from a Wabash Valley Community Foundation grant Nyendick received allowed the purchase of authentic, handmade drums from Ghana for students to use during the study, and will further enable the continuation of the program.

The study began in September with more than 30 Sarah Scott Middle School students taking a comprehensive math test, which they will retake in December and May. Students are divided into two groups - a control group of 20 students in Fusion Theater and a dozen students in African drumming, who are a study group.

Students practice 90 minutes, two days a week afterschool under direction of eight Indiana State theatre and music majors, including one international student who is handling the dance portion. "If we can find that (music education) somehow mediates or affects some of the cognitive or spatial skills we're seeing, that would be pretty cool because it would give us a potential reason for why," Brez said.

"Studies like what we're working on have the potential to help inform our understanding of what music education does," Brez said. "If we can show that it is a benefit for some of our more academic skills it would be great evidence for keeping these programs in schools."

Nyendick said she's noticed a difference in the students and their confidence when performing.

"Their skills are improving - their drumming skills and how they present themselves on stage," she said. They're much more confident, speak louder and are more comfortable with each other and as solo performers on the stage."

The study's preliminary data will be one-of-a-kind, Brez said, because no comprehensive study has really been done on these tasks before in relation to music education or how they work in kids.Several of Brez's students are processing the data collected in August and will hopefully have preliminary findings ready by summer's end.

"We've looked back at the time we spent at the school in August asking the students questions about their music history, how much their family values music, if they play an instrument, and now we sit down and talk about what worked and what didn't," she said. "Now they're doing the behind-the-scenes work and processing the data because my approach to training students is for them to see every aspect of the research process."

The study has benefits for everyone, including the Indiana State students involved.

"The ISU student instructors gain from experiential learning and are able to learn first-hand whether or not teaching is the right career path for them," Nyendick said. "It's a great experience they can add to their résumé to increase their chances of getting a job and going on to graduate school."

As one of eight Indiana State student instructors - including two international students who are assisting through a partnership with the Center for Global Engagement - Bob Randolph of Terre Haute has watched the student grow more engaged in their afterschool rehearsals ahead of a performance at Indiana State's New Theater.

"If you can get a group of kids in the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade who know only that they're going to act and have them perform two plays within a semester, and have it all go off without a hitch, is the greatest feeling you can have as an instructor. It's what you work for," said Randolph, a senior theatre major and lead instructor for Fusion Theater. "When the students put this on and their parents are out in the audience, we encourage filming and picture-taking because we want the students' hard work to get out there and bring more students in."

Likewise, Brez's students are learning the research process, from staying organized to communication and teamwork.

"Research isn't a single-person job like some people may think," said Grant Blauvelt, a freshman nursing major from Monroeville who's involved in the collection and processing of data. "There are times when everyone has to wait on one person to finish their work, but then suddenly there's a downpour of jobs to do."

Luckily, Blauvelt has worked alongside senior psychology major Libby Wallace, of Columbus, Ind. who's helped him organize the data, grade math tests and record information on the computer.

"I've been here for about a year working with Dr. Brez and I've learned how difficult it is to do research," she said. "You think you get the data, put in the numbers and analyze, but it's not so cut and dry."

Contact: Caitlin Brez, assistant professor of psychology, caitlin.brez@indstate.edu or Petra Nyendick, director of Community School for the Arts, Indiana State University, petra.nyendick@indstate.edu

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or betsy.simon@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Caitlin Brez, assistant professor of psychology, and Petra Nyendick, director of the Community School of the Arts at Indiana State, began a study in September to see why music instruction benefits math skills.

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