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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Modeling discrete and continuous entities with fractions and decimals.

  • Author(s): Rapp, Monica
  • Bassok, Miriam
  • DeWolf, Melissa
  • Holyoak, Keith J
  • et al.

When people use mathematics to model real-life situations, their use of mathematical expressions is often mediated by semantic alignment (Bassok, Chase, & Martin, 1998): The entities in a problem situation evoke semantic relations (e.g., tulips and vases evoke the functionally asymmetric "contain" relation), which people align with analogous mathematical relations (e.g., the noncommutative division operation, tulips/vases). Here we investigate the possibility that semantic alignment is also involved in the comprehension and use of rational numbers (fractions and decimals). A textbook analysis and results from two experiments revealed that both mathematic educators and college students tend to align the discreteness versus continuity of the entities in word problems (e.g., marbles vs. distance) with distinct symbolic representations of rational numbers--fractions versus decimals, respectively. In addition, fractions and decimals tend to be used with nonmetric units and metric units, respectively. We discuss the importance of the ontological distinction between continuous and discrete entities to mathematical cognition, the role of symbolic notations, and possible implications of our findings for the teaching of rational numbers.

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