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Funded PhD Opportunity

Eye see what you are thinking! Use of eye tracking to understand young children’s mathematical processing

Subject: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience


In addition to the essential criteria noted below, the Degree (or equivalent) qualification must be in Psychology or a closely related discipline. We will accept applications from candidates who are about to hold a minimum of and Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree in Psychology or closely related discipline (or overseas award deemed equivalent via UK NARIC) .

An additional Desirable criteria that may be applied is holding, being about to hold a Master's level qualification in Psychology or a closely related discipline.

*You must provide official, final results of qualifications used to meet the academic requirements before the start of the studentship Mathematical achievement is predictive of academic success, future employment, economic productivity1 and health outcomes2.

Global comparison studies such as PISA3 have emphasised the impact of the mathematical skills of a country on economic growth and well-being4. The cost of poor numeracy to the UK public sector has been estimated at £2.4bn per year5. On a national level, a substantial proportion of children (e.g. 13% in England) do not meet expected outcome levels in mathematics in primary school at Key Stage Two.6  Poor early numeracy skills have been acknowledged as contributing to a “viscous cycle of disadvantage and a poverty of opportunity”7.

A number of general cognitive and mathematics-specific skills have been identified as being predictive of mathematical achievement in primary school aged children such as working memory8, inhibitory control9, counting skills10 and flexible strategy use11.  Although there has been a recent increase in the focus on mathematical development research there is still paucity in our understanding of mathematical achievement when compared to reading. Specifically, the identification of children who may struggle with mathematics has been problematic. Therefore, there is a current debate in the academic literature, and with practitioners, focused on identification and intervention. This is mainly due to the lack of diagnostic tools.

Eye tracking provides a unique opportunity for identifying children who may struggle with learning mathematics. Specifically, a case study12 and a small scale study13 using eye tracking data has indicated that there may be differences in strategy use between children who do and do not struggle with mathematical processing. However, these studies are far from conclusive, mainly as they use very small samples. Thus, by using eye tracking methodology in more adequately powered studies this project will aim to gain insight into children’s processing and, using computational models of eye tracking data, will attempt to identify children who find mathematical processing difficult.

Primary objective of the research:

To investigate the visual processing strategies children use when completing mathematical tasks using eye tracking technology; to utilise eye tracking data to identify children who may struggle with mathematical processing.


A systematic review will be conducted to identify literature that discusses mathematical learning difficulties and their underlying causes. Specifically, the review will focus on identified differences in how children with and without mathematical learning difficulties complete mathematical tasks. The main body of the project will consist of two studies.

Study One will assess children’s strategy use when completing a number line estimation task, a non-symbolic comparison task and a basic arithmetic task. Standardised mathematical tasks will be administered to assess mathematical achievement. Children’s eye movements will be recorded using a TOBII eye tracker (new, state of the art equipment in the Psychological Science Laboratory at Ulster University). Advanced computational analysis and machine learning techniques will be used to identify children who have difficulties in processing mathematical information from their eye movement behaviour.

Study Two will track a group of children over a period of one year in order to assess changes in strategy use over time. These data will be unique, as currently longitudinal eye tracking data does not exist for a developmental study of mathematical cognition. These data will be used to establish developmental patterns in strengths and difficulties in strategy use when completing mathematics tasks. This study will contribute important data to inform diagnoses and intervention.


Eye tracking technology is non-intrusive (the eye tracker is positioned along the bottom of a computer screen). Ethical approval will be sought through Ulster University Ethics Panel before commencing the project. Parents/guardians of participating children will provide written informed consent for their child to take part in the study. Children will provide assent.


1. Williams, J. Clements, S.,Oleinikova, K. & Tarvin, K. (2003) The Skills for Life survey: A national needs and impact survey of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. United Kingdom: Department for Education and Skills.

2. Every Child a Chance Trust and KPMG. (2008). The long term cost of numeracy difficulties. United Kingdom: Every Child a Chance Trust.

3. Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development  (2014). Education at a glance: OECD indicators. Source: Last Accessed: 1st January 2016.

4. Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development  (2010). Education at a glance. Source: Last Accessed: 1st January 2016.

5. Goss, J., Hudson, C. & Price, D. (2009). The Long Term Costs of Numeracy Difficulties. Every Child a Chance Trust: London.

6. Department for Education. (2015). Source: Last Accessed: 1st January 2016.

7. Northern Ireland Audit Office. (2013). Improving literacy and numeracy achievement in schools. United Kingdom: Northern Ireland Audit Office.

8. Raghubar, K.P., Barnes, M.A., & Hecht, S.A. (2010). Working memory and mathematics: A review of developmental, individual difference, and cognitive approaches. Learning and Individivual Differences, 20, 110-122.

9. Cragg, L. & Gilmore, C. (2014). Skills underlying mathematics: The role of executive function in the development of mathematics proficiency. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 3, 63-68.

10. Cowan, R., Donlan, C., Shepherd, D.L., Cole-Fletcher, R., Saxton, M., & Hurry, J. (2011). Basic calculation proficiency and mathematics achievement in elementary school children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 786-803.

11. Geary, D., & Brown, S. (1991). Cognitive addition: Strategy choice and speed-of-processing differences in gifted, normal, and mathematically disabled children. Developmental Psychology, 27, 398-406.

12.  van Viersen,  S., Slot, E., Kroesbergen, E., van’t Noordende, J., & Leseman, P. (2013).  The value of eye-tracking in diagnosing dyscalculia; a case study. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 679. Doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00679

13. van’t Noordende, J., van Hoogmoed, A.,  Schot, W., & Kroesbergen, E. (2016). Number line estimation strategies in children with mathematical learning difficulties measured by eye tracking. Psychological Research, 80, 368-378.

Essential criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £14,777 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 14,777 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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Key dates

Submission deadline
Monday 18 February 2019

Interview Date
w/c 11 March 2019


Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
Our coastal and riverside campus focussing on science and health

Contact supervisor

Dr Victoria Simms

Other supervisors


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