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Removing opportunities to calculate improves students' performance on subsequent word problems.

  • Author(s): Givvin, Karen B
  • Moroz, Veronika
  • Loftus, William
  • Stigler, James W
  • et al.

BACKGROUND:In two studies we investigated whether removing opportunities to calculate could improve students' subsequent ability to solve similar word problems. Students were first asked to write explanations for three word-problems that they thought would help another student understand the problems. Half of the participants explained typical word problems (i.e., problems with enough information to make calculating an answer possible), while the other half explained the same problems with numbers removed, making calculating an answer impossible. We hypothesized that removing opportunities to calculate would induce students to think relationally about the word problems, which would result in higher levels of performance on subsequent transfer problems. RESULTS:In both studies, participants who explained the non-calculable problems performed significantly better on the transfer test than participants who explained the typical (i.e., calculable) problems. This was so in spite of the manipulation not fully suppressing students' desire to calculate. Many students in the non-calculable group explicitly stated that they needed numbers in order to answer the question or made up numbers with which to calculate. There was a significant, positive relationship between the frequency with which students made up numbers and their self-reported mathematics anxiety. CONCLUSIONS:We hypothesized that the mechanism at play was a reduction in instrumental thinking (and an increase in relational thinking). Interventions designed to help students remediate prior mathematical failure should perhaps focus less on the specific skills students are lacking, and more on the dispositions they bring to the task of "doing mathematics."

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