Making mathematics on paper : constructing representations of stories about related linear functions
This dissertation takes up the problem of applied quantitative inference as a central question for cognitive science, asking what must happen during problem solving for people to obtain a meaningful and effective representation of the problem. The core of the dissertation reports exploratory empirical studies that seek to answer the descriptive question of how quantitative inferences are generated, pursued, and evaluated by problem solvers with different mathematical backgrounds. These are framed against a controversy, described in Chapter 2, over the theoretical and empirical validity of current cognitive science accounts of problems, solutions, knowledge, and competent human activity outside of laboratory or school settings.
Chapter 3 describes a written protocol study of algebra story problem solving among advanced undergraduates in computer science. A relatively open-ended interpretive framework for "problem-solving episodes" is developed and applied to their written solution attempts. The resulting description of problem-solving activities gives a surprising image of competence among an important occupational target for standard mathematics instruction.
Chapter 4 follows these results into detailed verbal problem-solving interviews with algebra students and teachers. These provide a comparison across settings and levels of competence for the same set of problems. The results corroborate similar generative activities outside the standard formalism of algebra across levels of competence. Notable among these nonalgebraic problem-solving activities are "model-based reasoning tactics," in which people reason about quantitative relations in terms of the dimensional structure of functional relations described in the problem. These tactics support different activities within surrounding solution attempts and usually describe "states" in the problem's situational structure.
Chapter 5 holds these activities accountable to local combinations of notation and quantity, reinterpreting results for model-based reasoning in an ecological analysis of material designs for constructing and evaluating quantitative inferences. This analysis brings forward important relations between what material designs afford problem solvers and the complexity of episodic structure observed in their solution attempts. The dissertation closes with a reappraisal of the relationship between knowledge, person, and setting and, I will argue, puts us on a more promising track for a descriptively adequate theoretical account of constructing mathematical representations that support applied quantitative inference.