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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Exploring the episodic structure of algebra story problem solving


This paper analyzes the quantitative and situational structure of algebra story problems, uses these materials to propose an interpretive framework for written problem-solving protocols, and then presents an exploratory study of the episodic structure of algebra story problem solving in a sizable group of mathematically competent subjects. Analyses of written protocols compare the strategic, tactical, and conceptual content of solution attempts, looking within these attempts at the interplay between problem comprehension and solution. Comprehension and solution of algebra story problems are complimentary activities, giving rise to a succession of problem solving episodes. While direct algebraic problem solving is sometimes effective, results suggest that the algebraic formalism may be of little help in comprehending the quantitative constraints posed in a problem text. Instead, competent problem solvers often reason within the situational context presented by a story problem, using various forms of "model-based reasoning" to identify, pursue, and verify quantitative constraints required for solution. The paper concludes by discussing the implications of these findings for acquiring mathematical concepts (e.g., related linear functions) and for supporting their acquisition through instruction.

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