The effects of cooperative learning

Kamuran Tarim has written an article entitled The effects of cooperative learning on preschoolers’ mathematics problem-solving ability. The article was published online in Educational Studies in Mathematics on Tuesday. Here is the abstract of the article:

The aim of this study is to investigate the efficiency of cooperative learning on preschoolers’ verbal mathematics problem-solving abilities and to present the observational findings of the related processes and the teachers’ perspectives about the application of the program. Two experimental groups and one control group participated in the study. Results found that preschoolers in the experimental groups experienced larger improvements in their problem-solving abilities than those in the control group. Findings also revealed that the cooperative learning method can be successfully applied in teaching verbal mathematics problem-solving skills during the preschool period. The preschoolers’ skills regarding cooperation, sharing, listening to the speaker and fulfilling individual responsibilities in group work improved. The teachers’ points of view also supported these findings.

Tarim, K. (2009). The effects of cooperative learning on preschoolers’ mathematics problem-solving ability. Educational Studies in Mathematics. doi: 10.1007/s10649-009-9197-x. 

Non-routine problem solving

Iliada Elia, Marja van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Angeliki Kolovou have written an article called Exploring strategy use and strategy flexibility in non-routine problem solving by primary school high achievers in mathematics. The article was published online in ZDM on Tuesday. Here is the abstract of their article:

Many researchers have investigated flexibility of strategies in various mathematical domains. This study investigates strategy use and strategy flexibility, as well as their relations with performance in non-routine problem solving. In this context, we propose and investigate two types of strategy flexibility, namely inter-task flexibility (changing strategies across problems) and intra-task flexibility (changing strategies within problems). Data were collected on three non-routine problems from 152 Dutch students in grade 4 (age 9–10) with high mathematics scores. Findings showed that students rarely applied heuristic strategies in solving the problems. Among these strategies, the trial-and-error strategy was found to have a general potential to lead to success. The two types of flexibility were not displayed to a large extent in students’ strategic behavior. However, on the one hand, students who showed inter-task strategy flexibility were more successful than students who persevered with the same strategy. On the other hand, contrary to our expectations, intra-task strategy flexibility did not support the students in reaching the correct answer. This stemmed from the construction of an incomplete mental representation of the problems by the students. Findings are discussed and suggestions for further research are made.

Mathematical problem solving and students’ belief systems

María Luz Callejo and Antoni Vila have written an article that was published in Educational Studies in Mathematics last week. The article is entitled Approach to mathematical problem solving and students’ belief systems: two case studies. Most studies that focus on the role of beliefs in relation to problem solving are to some degree based on the works of Alan Schoenfeld, Günther Törner, Liewen Verschaffel, Erkki Pehkonen and several others. So does this. The theoretical part of the paper gives a nice overview of some of the most important earlier studies within this field. Personally, I would have included reference to some more critical perspectives, like Jeppe Skott, and when discussing belief systems, I also think the work of Keith Leatham provides an important contribution to the field. In their discussion, they consider inconsistencies between beliefs and actions, and in this connection, I think a reference to Leatham’s work and his proposed framework of viewing beliefs as sensible systems would have been worthwhile.

Still, I think it is an interesting article to read if you are interested in problem solving or research on beliefs. Here is the article abstract:

The goal of the study reported here is to gain a better understanding of the role of belief systems in the approach phase to mathematical problem solving. Two students of high academic performance were selected based on a previous exploratory study of 61 students 12–13 years old. In this study we identified different types of approaches to problems that determine the behavior of students in the problem-solving process. The research found two aspects that explain the students’ approaches to problem solving: (1) the presence of a dualistic belief system originating in the student’s school experience; and (2) motivation linked to beliefs regarding the difficulty of the task. Our results indicate that there is a complex relationship between students’ belief systems and approaches to problem solving, if we consider a wide variety of beliefs about the nature of mathematics and problem solving and motivational beliefs, but that it is not possible to establish relationships of causality between specific beliefs and problem-solving activity (or vice versa).

Productive failure in mathematical problem solving

Manu Kapur has written an article that was published in Instructional Science on Thursday. The article is entitled Productive failure in mathematical problem solving. Here is the abstract of Kapur’s article:

This paper reports on a quasi-experimental study comparing a “productive failure” instructional design (Kapur in Cognition and Instruction 26(3):379–424, 2008) with a traditional “lecture and practice” instructional design for a 2-week curricular unit on rate and speed. Seventy-five, 7th-grade mathematics students from a mainstream secondary school in Singapore participated in the study. Students experienced either a traditional lecture and practice teaching cycle or a productive failure cycle, where they solved complex problems in small groups without the provision of any support or scaffolds up until a consolidation lecture by their teacher during the last lesson for the unit. Findings suggest that students from the productive failure condition produced a diversity of linked problem representations and methods for solving the problems but were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts, be it in groups or individually. Expectedly, they reported low confidence in their solutions. Despite seemingly failing in their collective and individual problem-solving efforts, students from the productive failure condition significantly outperformed their counterparts from the lecture and practice condition on both well-structured and higher-order application problems on the post-tests. After the post-test, they also demonstrated significantly better performance in using structured-response scaffolds to solve problems on relative speed—a higher-level concept not even covered during instruction. Findings and implications of productive failure for instructional design and future research are discussed.

Diagrams in problem solving

Marilena Pantziara, Athanasios Gagatsis and Iliada Elia have written an article entitled Using diagrams as tools for the solution of non-routine mathematical problems. The article has recently been published online in Educational Studies in Mathematics. Here is the abstract of their article:

The Mathematics education community has long recognized the importance of diagrams in the solution of mathematical problems. Particularly, it is stated that diagrams facilitate the solution of mathematical problems because they represent problems’ structure and information (Novick & Hurley, 2001; Diezmann, 2005). Novick and Hurley were the first to introduce three well-defined types of diagrams, that is, network, hierarchy, and matrix, which represent different problematic situations. In the present study, we investigated the effects of these types of diagrams in non-routine mathematical problem solving by contrasting students’ abilities to solve problems with and without the presence of diagrams. Structural equation modeling affirmed the existence of two first-order factors indicating the differential effects of the problems’ representation, i.e., text with diagrams and without diagrams, and a second-order factor representing general non-routine problem solving ability in mathematics. Implicative analysis showed the influence of the presence of diagrams in the problems’ hierarchical ordering. Furthermore, results provided support for other studies (e.g. Diezman & English, 2001) which documented some students’ difficulties to use diagrams efficiently for the solution of problems. We discuss the findings and provide suggestions for the efficient use of diagrams in the problem solving situation.

Problem-solving and cryptography

Tobin White has written an interesting article about cryptography and problem solving. The article is entitled Encrypted objects and decryption processes: problem-solving with functions in a learning environment based on cryptography, and the article was published online in Educational Studies in Mathematics on Thursday. Those of you who don’t have a subscription to this journal will be interested to know that the article is an Open Access article, and it is therefore available to all! (Direct link to pdf download) Here is the abstract of the article:

This paper introduces an applied problem-solving task, set in the context of cryptography and embedded in a network of computer-based tools. This designed learning environment engaged students in a series of collaborative problem-solving activities intended to introduce the topic of functions through a set of linked representations. In a classroom-based study, students were asked to imagine themselves as cryptanalysts, and to collaborate with the other members of their small group on a series of increasingly difficult problem-solving tasks over several sessions. These tasks involved decrypting text messages that had been encrypted using polynomial functions as substitution ciphers. Drawing on the distinction between viewing functions as processes and as objects, the paper presents a detailed analysis of two groups’ developing fluency with regard to these tasks, and of the aspects of the function concept underlying their problem-solving approaches. Results of this study indicated that different levels of expertise with regard to the task environment reflected and required different aspects of functions, and thus represented distinct opportunities to engage those different aspects of the function concept.

A comparison of curricular effect

The new issue of Instructional Science (January, 2009) has an article related to mathematics education: A comparison of curricular effects on the integration of arithmetic and algebraic schemata in pre-algebra students, by Bryan Moseley and Mary E. (“Betsy”) Brenner. Here is their article abstract:

This research examines students’ ability to integrate algebraic variables with arithmetic operations and symbols as a result of the type of instruction they received, and places their work on scales that illustrate its location on the continuum from arithmetic to algebraic reasoning. It presents data from pre and post instruction clinical interviews administered to a sample of middle school students experiencing their first exposure to formal pre-algebra. Roughly half of the sample (n = 15) was taught with a standards-based curriculum emphasizing representation skills, while a comparable group (n = 12) of students received traditional instruction. Analysis of the pre and post interviews indicated that participants receiving a standards-based curriculum demonstrated more frequent and sophisticated usage of variables when writing equations to model word problems of varying complexity. This advantage was attenuated on problems that provided more representational support in which a diagram with a variable was presented with the request that an expression be written to represent the perimeter and area. Differences in strategies used by the two groups suggest that the traditional curriculum encouraged students to continue using arithmetic conventions, such as focusing on finding specific values, when asked to model relations with algebraic notation.

Mathematical enculturation

Jacob Perrenet and Ruurd Taconis have written an article called Mathematical enculturation from the students’ perspective: shifts in problem-solving beliefs and behaviour during the bachelor programme. The article was published online in Educational Studies in Mathematics on Tuesday, and it is an Open Access article, so it is freely available to anyone! Here is the article abstract:

This study investigates the changes in mathematical problem-solving beliefs and behaviour of mathematics students during the years after entering university. Novice bachelor students fill in a questionnaire about their problem-solving beliefs and behaviour. At the end of their bachelor programme, as experienced bachelor students, they again fill in the questionnaire. As an educational exercise in academic reflection, they have to explain their individual shifts in beliefs, if any. Significant shifts for the group as a whole are reported, such as the growth of attention to metacognitive aspects in problem-solving or the growth of the belief that problem-solving is not only routine but has many productive aspects. On the one hand, the changes in beliefs and behaviour are mostly towards their teachers’ beliefs and behaviour, which were measured using the same questionnaire. On the other hand, students show aspects of the development of an individual problem-solving style. The students explain the shifts mainly by the specific nature of the mathematics problems encountered at university compared to secondary school mathematics problems. This study was carried out in the theoretical framework of learning as enculturation. Apparently, secondary mathematics education does not quite succeed in showing an authentic image of the culture of mathematics concerning problem-solving. This aspect partly explains the low number of students choosing to study mathematics.

Creativity and interdisciplinarity

Johathan Plucker and Dasha Zabelina have written an article in ZDM called: Creativity and interdisciplinarity: one creativity or many creativities? The article was published online on Tuesday. Here is the abstract of the article:

Psychologists and educators frequently debate whether creativity and problem solving are domain-general—applicable to all disciplines and tasks—or domain-specific—tailored to specific disciplines and tasks. In this paper, we briefly review the major arguments for both positions, identify conceptual and empirical weaknesses of both perspectives, and describe two relatively new hybrid models that attempt to address ways in which creativity and innovation are both domain-general and domain-specific.