Can search trends analysis help identify gaps in math education?

search trend analysis math gaps

When schools were abruptly closed across Canada in the Spring of 2020 due to Covid-19 and all learning moved online, a number of students found it difficult to stay engaged. This may have resulted in some gaps in math education. Analyzing the search trends over the period of the past 12 months could help educators see what some of the most searched topics were and are. The results could equip educators with the data regarding which math topics require special attention to fill those gaps in math education.

In order to conduct our small research, we used the Google Trends tool, offered by the most popular search engine worldwide.

We first decided to see what Canada search trends looked like over the 12 months period for the general field of mathematics. It was obvious from the graph (see below) before and immediately after the 2019/2020 winter break the interest in this field was quite steady and the average search volume was around 70%. During the winter break the search volume went down significantly for obvious reasons. At the end of March and throughout the month of April a spike in the search volume for math-related topics can be clearly observed. In May and June the search volume was consistently declining and then remained really low throughout the summer. In September 2020 the search volume spiked again and continues to be above around 75% average.

mathematics field search volume graph
“Mathematics” field

The decline in search volume for math related concepts in May and June of 2020 could mean a number of things, including the lack of student engagement in learning and, therefore, to potential knowledge gaps in the topics studied over that period of time.

Next, we looked at some of the most popular topics within the field of mathematics over the same period of time. 

“Product” came up as one of the popular topics. The search for it peaked in October 2019, April 2020 and September-October 2020. The search volume for the phrase “what is the product in math” has gone up 200% at the beginning of the 2020/2021 school year. This could mean that students may not be familiar with certain common math terminology and it is a great idea to emphasize that common terminology in all grades.

search results for product

After that, we have decided to go through a number of math topics and compare their search volumes over the same period of time. It turned out that two of the most popular ones were “fractions” and “functions”. When students are trying to learn something, their search terms often start with “how to”, “what is” or just an expression representing the concept, for example “linear functions”. So we looked at the phrases that looked like that.

comparison graph search trends math

For the “functions” topic the search queries were more or less consistently high compared to other topics (such as linear equations or product), but peaked during September 2020. The volume of search queries such as “cubic function graph”, “polynomial functions”, “fonction polynomiale” and “how to find the domain of a function” have grown up to 200%. Of course this makes sense as students returned to school and probably started learning those topics. However, it could also mean that in high school more time could be dedicated to the concept of the function domain and range, as well as this concept could be specifically reinforced in every high school math course. 

search trends for domain of a function
“how to find the domain of a function”

Another popular topic was “fractions”. It is interesting to note that In Ontario in April-May 2020 the search volume of “fraction games for kids” has grown by 2600%. This could mean that teachers and parents were looking for ways to engage students online in practicing the concept. Another popular search phrase in Ontario and Alberta that peaked in April and May 2020 was “what is an equivalent fraction”. Its popularity grew 600% at the time. A 200% increase in search volume in September-October 2020 have seen queries “how to add fractions with different denominators” and “what is an improper fraction”.

search trends for adding fractions
“how to add fractions with different denominators”

All in all, however imperfect our research might be, we have found that although users are regularly searching for many math related topics, some concepts do stand out more. Especially during the spring of the Covid-19 quarantine and when school restarted in September. The analysis of search trends could provide a lot of useful information. It could show that students require more assistance and explanation, as well as regular practice on specific concepts. Teachers could use search trends to compare various math strands and use that data to review or emphasize certain important math concepts, identify broader gaps in math education.


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