Focus on pattern recognition in math shifts emphasis from “what’s the answer?” to “how do you solve this problem?”

As schools struggle to balance conceptual learning and recall of simple facts, a new series of online math education products proposes a different focus: pattern recognition.

Insight Learning Technology, a startup company formed by a pair of academics, has created online math education modules that tap into not only adaptive learning, which uses computer interactivity to individualize students’ lessons, but also the lesser-known field of perceptual learning, which focuses on patterns and relationships.

By focusing on perceptual learning, the software aims to teach students how to learn math—in other words, what pieces of information are most important when tackling a problem.

Three modules, based on the cognitive development research of company co-founders Phil Kellman and Christine Massey, will hit the market in time for the fall semester: MultiRep Insight, Algebra Insight, and Best Basic Math.

Schools would pay about $3 to $5 per student for a year’s worth of each module, with potential discounts based on volume.

Cognitive scientists generally focus on building declarative or procedural knowledge—that is, putting into memory specific facts or steps of a process.

“Most people think that’s all there is, but there’s another [type] of learning for getting good at anything, and that’s pattern recognition,” said Kellman, who chairs cognitive psychology at UCLA.

He cited the example of a young child learning to classify an object as a cat. Through observation of many cats, the child begins to recognize which characteristics are crucial to being a cat—whiskers, pointy ears—and which are not as important.

The concept of perceptual learning applies across all fields: Kellman also has conducted studies in pilot training and medical education. But Insight chose to focus first on math education, a particular pain point in American schools.

Insight’s modules drill students on similar problems until they recognize patterns. The Algebra Insight product, for example, trains students to develop fluency in algebra transformations and operations.

Beginning students generally “know the rules” of algebra, but are very slow in recognizing and applying them, said Massey, director of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Solving algebra problems requires students “to be thinking about a lot of things at once—they have a high cognitive load,” she said.

When students crank through entire problems, they are often distracted by so many other concerns—such as mental math and completing all the steps in the correct order—that they often can’t see the larger patterns, Massey said.

She said Algebra Insight’s perceptual learning approach “takes a lot of the load off” of students by reducing the number of ideas they need to hold in their head at once and instead focusing on recognition of algebraic rules.

Insight’s math education products tap into the thinking processes required not only for learning, but also for developing expertise, Kellman said.