Middle School Students’ Intuitive Techniques for Solving Algebraic Word Problems,

With the Guidance of Professor Virginia Horak

 

Final Report, May 5, 2004

 

by Michelle Roehler

 

BACKGROUND

 

Motivations

 

How do students approach word problems?  Are students intuitively drawn to algebraic methods, or do their approaches differ from these commonly emphasized techniques?  In this study, I explored middle school students’ methods for solving word problems and their utilization of algebra for problem solving.  In many classrooms, students are taught to tackle word problems with specific algorithms for each problem type, and they often develop a reliance on cookie-cutter equations without fully comprehending the underlying problem and the algebra used to solve it.  Since many students do not understand the concepts behind these methods, it is important to explore a student’s inherent approaches to problem solving and algebra.  This study provided insights into middle school students’ grasp of variables and their ability to develop equations with or without previous formal algebraic experience.  It also revealed which techniques are more intuitive to a student and indicated ways to present algebraic methods that build upon these skills. 

 

 

Development of my Research Framework

 

In developing my methodology and defining details for the problem-solving sessions, I utilized past studies and examples from various textbooks, my own priorities for research, and the experience and knowledge of my advisor, Professor Virginia Horak.  I am not alone in pursuing this style of research, and I have gained much insight from others’ research on similar topics.  Articles such as those mentioned below have provided extremely helpful ideas and strategies for conducting the problem-solving sessions, predicting results, and analyzing my observations.  For instance, my research on the use of word problems to define intuitive algebraic understanding led me to use story problems with familiar, easy to understand contexts in my research.  Also, I was able to use past studies and the school district’s textbooks to formulate word problems for the sessions.  I observed which styles were most indicative of algebraic understanding, and built from examples in textbooks that took into account the 6th grade student’s basic mathematical knowledge.  Thus, I used three problems that build upon different algebraic skills at different levels of varying levels of understanding (see attached problems). 

 

From Professor Horak’s educational research experiences and my own background research, we built a methodology that helped put the students at ease and gave me insight into their algebraic problem solving abilities.  My interview questions were based upon other related research experiences and my own investigational needs.  I tried to pose them in a way that wouldl encourage conversation and identify each student’s strategies and possible uses of algebra.  After obtaining my data from the problem-solving sessions, I was able to identify intuitive algebraic techniques and apply these to possible teaching strategies. 

 

 

Methodology

 

To obtain my research data, I worked with students individually in a problem-solving session.  My study included five 6th grade students with no previous formal algebraic exposure and five 8th grade students who have had formal experience with algebra.  I worked with one 6th grade and one 8th grade teacher, and they selected the students for the study from their own classrooms.  The 6th grade group included a mixture of mathematical proficiencies, while the 8th grade group was composed of students in the advanced algebra class with high B’s or A’s in the class.

 

Ideally, I wanted to conduct the problem-solving sessions with each individual student in a quiet area free from distraction.  In reality, the public schools are overcrowded and “quiet areas” are scarce.  My settings ranged from the hallway to the art display steps by the office and even the cafeteria.  Though my audio recordings contained the clanking of cafeteria tables and the sounds of students changing classes, the interviews were very successful.

 

First, I asked the student some questions to “break the ice,” such as their feelings about math and their favorite subject.  Then, I had three word problems for the student to solve one at a time.  I presented him or her with two word problems that could be represented algebraically and one geometry problem that could be solved using algebraic methods.  Each student had the following available materials to aid them in solving the problem: tiles, rulers, graphing paper, scratch paper, a formula sheet, nickels and dimes, and a calculator.  The students were free to use these materials instead of utilizing an algebraic approach if they desired. 

 

After working through the problem requirements and ensuring the student understood what was expected, he or she worked on each problem alone.  I observed how each student set up and found the solution to the problem, paying close attention to the tools utilized.  When the problem was completed or the student decided that they were finished, I encouraged the student to explain their problem solving strategies, elaborating on what they were doing at each step and why they chose each method.  I am now working with the collected data to identify students’ intuitive approaches to algebra and their abilities to grasp algebraic concepts such as equations and variables.  Each session was recorded on audiotape, and I took notes and observed throughout the process.  Each session ranged from 15-35 minutes, depending on the student’s success on the problems.

 

            To conduct this research, I spent much of the Fall 2003 semester working to gain approval for the project from the University Research Board and the school district.  To learn more about the approval process, click here.

 

 

Sample Findings from Previous Studies

 

            Much of my research involved examining related research from other sources.  These findings influenced the framework of my research approach, gave me insight into the current mathematical standards and pertinent issues in teaching, and suggested possible results or factors to identify while working with the students and processing my data.  I will summarize some of the important results from previous studies that have impacted my research.

 

            Past studies have revealed that children can grasp algebraic concepts at an early age if algebra problems are presented in intuitive ways.  In his work “Algebraic Problem Solving in the Primary Grades,” Robert Fermiano presents the theory that “even though primary-grade students may lack the formal level of thinking required to ‘efficiently’ solve equations, algebraic reasoning is still possible when approached in less sterile and more practical ways” (Fermiano 1).  Studying his own classroom of first through third grades, he proposed that if equations are put into concrete situations, children can more easily grasp the problem and use their intuitions to find a solution.  He takes almost every aspect of mathematics in his classroom and puts it into a problem-solving setting (Fermiano 1).  When problems are put into a story format, children are more apt to understand the problem, and their informal, intuitive approaches provide the basis for understanding the fundamental concepts of algebra.  When an algebra problem is presented in symbolic form, students are often intimidated and have no real instinct for solving the problem without the memorized methods available to older students (Fermiano 2).  Fermiano suggests that algebraic problem solving is crucial for a child’s development of mathematical skills, and the process of learning algebraic techniques must be built from the child’s “discovery” and intuitive concepts of algebra (Fermiano 4).  Thus, using word problems may provide a much more insightful view of the students’ inherent understanding of algebra and its fundamental concepts since they cater to a child’s innate mathematical responses. 

 

            On a similar note, Mitchell Nathan and Kenneth Koedinger suggest that contrary to many curriculums, students develop verbal problem solving skills, i.e. the ability to work with word problems, before they can comprehend symbolic problems (Nathan 2).  In their study, teachers repeatedly ranked word problems as the most difficult, but students showed surprising skill with these verbal problems, indicating that perhaps these skills develop before “symbolic reasoning” (Nathan 3).  These results have a huge impact on teaching strategies for algebra.  Nathan and Koedinger recommend teaching strategies that build more upon the student’s informal methods for solutions and the student’s verbal skills (Nathan 3).  When students build their own methods, they have a more in-depth understanding of the concepts.  Formal methods and symbolic representations should build upon these informal methods.  Alternative strategies, such as guess-and-check, help students discover fundamental algebraic concepts on their own, and building on the student’s inherent understanding will greatly enhance their mathematical success.

 

            Lesley R. Booth further explored some of the problems at the core of algebra learning in her article, “Children’s Difficulties in Beginning Algebra” (Booth 20).  Instead of focusing on a student’s innate understanding of the algebra problem, Booth presents common misconceptions about algebra that appear frequently throughout middle and high school.  Her study revealed some of the students’ struggles regarding the significance of a variable and its value in relation to arithmetic.  Students often do not feel that a problem has a solution if it contains variables; there is no concrete “final answer” for them to achieve (Booth 23).  Many students explained that, unless explicitly stated, a variable has no value, and many difficulties arise when students attempt to apply this confusing value to arithmetic.  In a different way, several students replaced a letter variable with its position in the alphabet or adamantly stated that two variables cannot have the same value if they are represented by different variables; there was also an insistence that the variable must start with the same letter as the unknown quantity  (Booth 22).  This coincides with the arguments in the previous articles that students often struggle with symbolic representation in general, and I have read several studies that reveal difficulties in algebra arising from these symbolic misconceptions.  

 

Though she admits that many children utilize informal methods to understand algebra concepts, Booth was wary about allowing students to rely on these methods.  There must be a balance between visualizing the problem and defining a procedure.  She proposed that “if students are to learn (and use) the more formal procedures, they must first see the need for them” (Booth 31).  She suggested that teachers should be aware of possible informal methods used by the students, and there should be discussion regarding the usefulness and limitations of the informal methods (Booth 31).  Thus, this article indicated a need for a combination of formal and informal teaching methods to obtain maximum algebraic understanding for beginning algebra students.  

 

Harold L. Schoen, in his work on “Teaching Elementary Algebra with a Word Problem Focus,” presented his belief that “it is possible to focus on interesting applications and word problems in the teaching of first-year algebra without deleting important topics” (Schoen 120).  In his article, Schoen presented several recommendations for teaching a first-year algebra course.  First, he recommended that teachers should “build new learning on students’ existing knowledge and understanding” (Shoen 120).  Students enter an algebra course with a significant amount of prior mathematical knowledge.  He suggested that basic topics such as areas and percentages should be re-introduced with an algebraic focus to build on concepts the students already know (Schoen 121).  Second, Schoen urged that teaching should “lead gradually from verbalization to algebraic symbolism” (Schoen 121).  By using word problems and verbal representations, teachers can better connect the underlying concept to the symbolic representation.  In addition, he recommends that teachers “introduce algebraic topics with applications” and teach these topics “from the perspective of how they can be applied” (Schoen 122,123).  This does not only enhance understanding of how the concept works; it also shows the student its usefulness in real life.  Overall, Shoen argued that the use of word problems in the classroom is beneficial to developing an understanding of symbolic representations.  He proposed the use of word problems to provide application to algebraic methods, and  insisted that implementing a word problem focus in the mathematics classroom is extremely feasible.

 

            In her article entitled “Developing Algebraic Reasoning in the Elementary Grades,” Jinfa Cai used a cross-national comparison to point out the need for increased development of algebraic strategies at the elementary level to give students a better grasp of problem solving (Cai 1).  In a comparison between the U.S., Japan, and China, fourth and sixth graders from the U.S. repeatedly avoided algebraic techniques, while students of the same age from China and Japan used algebra much more frequently in problem solving (Cai 2).  The fact that any students of this age would use algebra reveals that algebraic concepts can be taught and understood at the elementary level.  Thus, to enhance their problem solving abilities, students should be well exposed to algebra before middle or high school.

 

Cai explained the differences in problem-solving techniques by citing different teaching methods.  In the U.S., there is an emphasis on concrete methods and examples, while Chinese educators focus on a student’s understanding of the concept, not necessarily the visual example.  Chinese students are asked to solve a problem both arithmetically and algebraically, and then discuss the differences and similarities (Cai 3).  According to Cai, this method helps students to gain a deeper comprehension of the quantitative relationships, enhances their thinking skills and dexterity with different problem solving approaches, and helps students discover the similarities and differences between methods on their own (Cai 3).  Overall, Cai seemed to advocate the introduction of algebraic concepts at the elementary level with a shift from the traditional concrete visual representations of algebra to more abstract conceptual representations.  Again, there is a push to introduce algebra at a younger level to enhance a student’s future mathematical abilities.  To become more successful at problem solving, algebraic skills are a necessity, but letting students explore alternate methods will further enhance their conceptual understanding.

 

The most influential and helpful past research for this project thus far comes from Jane Swafford and Cynthia Langrall’s article entitled “Grade 6 Students’ Preinstructional Use of Equations to Describe and Represent Problem Situations.”  Swafford and Langrall studied 6th grade students’ ability to use equations to “describe and represent problem situations prior to formal instruction in algebra” (Swafford 1).  In my research, I am focusing on the students’ intuitive techniques, while this study uses directed questions that have the child construct equations and identify how they obtain a solution.  First, the investigators had the students express the general case verbally.  Then, the students were asked to use variables to represent the relationships in the problem.  Lastly, the researchers determined if and how the students would use these symbolic representations to obtain their solution (Swafford 2).  The students were given six word problems that represented different mathematical concepts, such as linear relationships and proportionality (Swafford  3).  Similar to our research, Langrall and Swafford utilized an audiotape recording, the students’ written work, and interview notes for analysis.  In their research, the investigator walked through several tasks with the students.  I will simply observe the students on their own, and then I will have them explain their methodology when they are finished.

 

Swafford and Langrall discovered that “sixth-grade students in this study showed a remarkable ability to generalize problem situations by describing relationships and writing appropriate equations using variables” (Swafford 6).  On the other hand, students were more able to represent the relationships verbally than symbolically, and few used their equations, even if correct, to obtain a solution (Swafford 6).  These results coincide with Nathan and Koedinger’s belief that the ability to represent a problem verbally is more inherent than the symbolic representations.  Also, Swafford and Langall observed that students were very able to generalize familiar arithmetic situations, and proposed that “middle school students would benefit from more experiences with a rich variety of multiplicative situations” (Swafford 9).  Similar to Cai, they suggested that teachers should focus more on changing values within the same context instead of giving examples of several different problems in different contexts (Swafford 9).  In Swafford and Langall’s study, the children had difficulty seeing their equations as “mathematical objects,” and they were not confident while working with variables (Swafford 10).  Thus, there seems to be a definite intuitive understanding of algebraic relationships and equations, but students have difficulties applying the symbolic representations to their problem-solving methods.  This indicates that curricular changes might help bridge this gap between students’ inherent comprehension of algebra and the formal symbolic representations and concepts.

 

WORKS CITED

 

 

RESULTS

 

Population Sample

 

In this study, I worked with one 6th grade teacher and one 8th grade teacher.  The 6th grade teacher emphasizes hands-on mathematical learning.  Her activities include “balancing equations” with a real scale and demonstrating multiplication using different sized rectangles that fit together.  The students see many of the activities as fun, and the teacher rarely uses a lecture-style approach.  In fact, the textbook was only used as threatened punishment while I was observing her classroom.  There was continual class participation, and most students were actively involved in each classroom activity. 

 

The 6th grade sample consisted of five students of varying ability levels and backgrounds.  The sample included one African American female, one Hispanic male, two Caucasian females, and one male of mixed Hispanic origin.  The students represented all levels of achievement in the class.  Some were more shy, but each student was very cooperative and eager to help.

 

The 8th grade classroom embodies a more traditional mathematical teaching approach.  The teacher uses more of an interactive lecture style.  There is an emphasis on homework, but the class goes through the homework together each day.  In general, there seems to be more focus on the textbook-style learning of mathematics, but there was significant class participation during the homework review. 

 

The 8th grade sample consisted of five high-achieving students selected by the teacher.  There was not a distinct cultural mix, but I was uncertain of their heritages.  The sample consisted of four females and one male.  This is the highest-level math class offered, so these are exceptional math students.  Each one in my sample maintained a high B or A in the class, and two of the females held the top positions in the class.  There was a general feeling of repulsion toward the subject of word problems in the classroom, even when they were told that they were the same problems given to the 6th graders.  Except for the typical 8th grade attitude problem, the students were very willing to help.

 

 

Specific Results

 

To see a chart that details each student’s response, click here.

 

 

Problem-Solving Data

 

For this section, I will examine each word problem individually.  I will present each problem in the same order that I gave them to the students.  Incidentally, the method of systems of equations was taught early in the spring semester and the problem-solving sessions were completed toward the middle of the semester. 

 

Problem #1:

 

Madison has a pocket full of nickels and dimes.  She has 4 more dimes than nickels.  The total value of the dimes and nickels is $1.15.  How many dimes and nickels does she have?

 

This problem, surprisingly, showed the most significant results.

 

6th Grade Responses:

 

Each 6th grade student utilized a guess and check method.  To organize their thoughts, two students were successful using charts, one drew pictures/diagrams, one found the coins useful, and one student was unable to make any progress on the problem despite using the coins. 

 

In general, the students’ approaches were very clear and demonstrated an excellent understanding of the problem.  Consider one student’s use of pictures to represent the problem below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This student decided to think of the total $1.15 in terms of quarters.  She drew a picture to clarify her thoughts.  She knew there are two dimes and one nickel in every quarter, and there are 4 quarters in a dollar.  Thus, she had only one nickel and one dime left after she obtained enough for a dollar.  Counting up the number of d’s and n’s, she successfully answered the problem quickly and with an excellent explanation.

 

The next example is an admirable use of a chart to solve this problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Though this student made a mistake on the first line, her logic was perfect.  She started out with one nickel, which meant she needed 5 dimes (4 more).  By multiplying the number of nickels by 5 and adding this value to the product of the number of dimes and 10, she was able to obtain her total.  Using guess and check, she continued to increment her values for nickels until she arrived at a total of $1.15.

 

Four of the 6th graders obtained the correct solution to this problem.  Each was able to explain his or her work well, and their strategies remained fairly consistent throughout the problem-solving sessions.

 

8th Grade Responses:

 

To my surprise, the 8th graders showed the most difficulty with this problem.  Each student started out using systems of equations to model the problem.  Four of the five algebra students developed a version of the following system:

 

N = nickels, D = dimes

D = N + 4

N + D = 115

 

Problem #1 was consistently the most difficult and time consuming for the 8th graders, partly because of their stubborn efforts to force the problem to work.  When I asked one stumped student what her equations meant, she replied, “I don’t know!  I just put them down!”  These students could not explain their work well.  To provide insight into the struggles on this problem, consider this 8th grade (who maintains an A in the class) student’s work:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


From the beginning, she incorrectly set up her systems by defining the equation:

 

D + N = 1.15.

 

Her problems only became worse.  Using the method of substitution, she replaced D with (N-4), only to realize that she had a decimal value on one side of the equation and a whole number on the other side.  She realized that this was a problem, but simply added a decimal in front of the 4.  She had no concept of what these values represented or even what her equations meant.  Though she repeated her calculations several times, she could not get a satisfactory result.  So she tried a different approach:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


She knew that the value of a dime is equal to two nickels.  Thus, she replaced her N = D+4 equation with D=2N.  It seems clear that she also has little understanding of her variable meanings.  In the same system, D stands for a monetary value $0.10 as well as the number of dimes.  Once again, she could not explain her work well, and in the end obtained the correct answer using guess and check methods.

 

The other students displayed similar difficulties, although one of the four eventually remedied her mistake.  Three of the five total students reverted to guess and check to obtain their final solution.

 

Problem #2:

 

1.      Elinor loves to paint.  She paints pictures to sell in her mother’s store.  She earns $3.00 for her small paintings and $5.00 for her large paintings.

a.      How much money would Elinor earn if she sold 6 large paintings and 11 small paintings?

b.      One Monday, Elinor sold only small paintings.  She earned $36.  How many small paintings did she sell?

c.       On Tuesday, Elinor sold 3 more large paintings than small paintings.  In total, she earned $39.  How many of each size painting did she sell?

 

This example produced results very similar to the first problem.  Each student was able to solve parts (a) and (b) successfully or with only insignificant arithmetic errors.  Part (c) proved the most challenging.

 

6th Grade Responses:

 

Again, the 6th grade students utilized guess and check methods to solve this problem.  Several used charts to organize their work, one would write an answer and erase it until he found the correct solution, and one student was unable to solve the problem.  The techniques were very similar to the first problem. 

 

8th Grade Responses:

 

Again, only one algebra student successfully used algebra to solve part (c).  The other students set up the system with the same error:

 

S = Small, L = Large

S + L = 39

L = S + 3

 

These students eventually solved the problem using guess and check methods.

 

Problem #3:

Arwen wants to plant a tulip garden.  To keep out the rabbits, she must set up a fence around the flowerbed.  She has 24 feet of fencing.

a.      If Arwen makes a square flowerbed with her fencing, how long will each side be?  What is the area of this flowerbed?

b.      In the square flowerbed, Arwen wants to plant 2 tulips for every square foot inside the flowerbed.  How many tulips will she plant in the flowerbed from part(a)?

c.       Arwen decided to make the flowerbed a rectangle.  She made one side 4 feet longer than the other side.  How long is each side of her flowerbed?

 

This problem is geometry-based but can be solved algebraically.  Surprisingly, only half the students drew a diagram while working on this problem.  Most students had little trouble with parts (a) and (b) outside of an occasional lack of conceptual understanding of area and perimeter.  Again, the most interesting part of Problem #3 was part (c). 

 

Each student that drew a picture also employed the guess and check method.  Most of these students used charts; one student drew the rectangles to scale using a ruler and 1 inch = 1 foot.  One 6th grade student was quick to solve this style of problem in the previous two algebraic examples, but had difficulty seeing any relationship between those problems and this geometry problem.  In the end, she was successful, but could not see the same algebraic relationships that she had used in the previous problems. 

 

Only two of the students missed this problem.  The first was the 6th grade student who was unable to understand any of the previous similar situations.  Ironically, the second was the only student who set up the problem correctly using algebraic methods.  Each of the other students used guess and check methods to obtain their solutions.  The algebra students again set up the system incorrectly, and one did not even attempt to use algebra by this point.

 

This is an example of the correct system of equations used by an 8th grade student:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


She set up her first equation correctly as l – w = 4, but made a mistake in her elimination method by failing to multiply the right side by 2.  She never doubted her answer, even though the problem statement requires the length to be 4 feet longer than the width.  The 8th graders tended to use their methods blindly without understanding the reasoning behind them; thus, this student trusted her solution without question.  Each problem is a technique or routine.  There is little demand for understanding relationships or underlying motives.

 

Furthermore, the 8th graders often could not see the relationship between the problem-solving methods they were using.  For example, one perplexed 8th grader had failed on Problem #1 because of her poor choice in equations.  Using the method of substitution, her solution was completely unreasonable.  All of sudden she declared “I know what I was doing wrong!” and proceeded to solve the same system using the technique of elimination.  She did not understand that these methods indeed produce the exact same results.

 

General Observations

 

In general, most of the 6th grade students showed a much better grasp for the relationships and logic within each problem.  They were able to better visualize each situation and make it rational.  Each utilized some form of guess and check, and some students were more orderly than others.  One 6th grade student had an excellent grasp of the important parts of Problem #1:


”The most important part is knowing I have this many nickels and how many cents would it equal and the same with dimes.”


This student was able to see a deeper meaning and relationship than the common response, “I have four more dimes than nickels and a total of $1.15.”  If some of the 8th graders had explored beyond this stripped reading of the problem, they might have a better understanding of the relationships between the variables and within their own systems of equations.

 

Four of the five 6th graders were generally successful with Problems 1, 2(c), and 3(c).  One student was not able to make any progress on these problems.  Each student varied in methodology, especially in their pattern for using guess and check.  Some were very methodical in their choices and utilized elaborate charts.  Others were a little more haphazard (and some might say “lucky!”).  Consider one student’s interesting reasoning for Problem #2(c):

 

“I think I need to use a chart again this time…  Since [the large paintings] go for $5, 5 goes into 39 six times…  that would be a remainder of 9…  because then I know it could go into 35 for 7, but 3 wouldn’t go into 5 very well and there wouldn’t be any small paintings, but if you did 39 then there’s 6 and there’s 9 left over and 3 goes into 9 three times and the total of it would be…. $39 and then 6 large is 3 more paintings than the small which is the answer.”

 

Ideally, algebraic methods will help this student organize her intuitive reasoning and allow her to tackle much more complicated problems with a more consistent approach.  Overall, the 6th graders could give clear explanations of each step and easily identified the important parts of the problem.  Their grasp of the relationships between quantities in the problem was excellent for the most part.  They solved each problem using their intuitive understanding of these relationships and let this intuition guide their chosen methodology.

 

On the other hand, the 8th grade students often showed a stubborn need to use algebra.  When I suggested to one frustrated student that she could use any of the tools on the table to help her, she indignantly replied, “I don’t want to use the coins!”  In another instance, a student who could not remember the methods for solving systems of equations stated,

 

“I could use this [the coins]…but I could solve it easier if I just used this [his algebraic system]…but I don’t remember how…”

 

Alternative methods seemed inferior to some 8th grade students, and most of these students had difficulty thinking about the problem outside of their own systems of equations.  In general, each student with difficulties set up his or her system without understanding its application.  He or she repeatedly made the same errors and several could not explain what their equations or variables really meant.  Consider the following explanation for Problem #1:

 

            Student #9:   “I know I’m supposed to solve for one of the letters…”

            Investigator: “Which equation deals with money?”

            Student #9:   “D + N = 115”

            Investigator: “What does D represent?”

            Student #9:   “The dimes”

            Investigator: “What about the dimes?”

Student #9:   “I guess how many there are… I guess then it should be the number— what

         it’s worth…I guess I don’t know…I just can’t do these…I just don’t know

         how many there are…”

 

Later on, Student #9 above had difficulties with Problem #2(c):

 

“I remember doing these in class, but I don’t remember the formulas we used…  It’s like you find one variable but I don’t remember what you’re supposed to plug in and stuff…  You probably do this one the same as the other one, so if I could figure out this one it would be better…”

 

This statement demonstrates a reliance on the memorization of formulas and methods without understanding the underlying purpose.  The students who could remember the basic algebraic techniques often became frustrated when the dependable algebra methods did not produce a logical answer.  Often students seemed to regurgitate methods without understanding why that method was useful.  Repeatedly they could not explain their variables or systems very well.  Consider this perplexed student’s reasoning for Problem #1:

 

Student #4:  “I’ll try the algebra different… [after several minutes]  “I always get the

        same number!”

            Investigator: “What do your variables mean?”

            Student #4:  The variables are how many dimes and how many nickels.”

            Investigator:  “How did you use those in your equation?”

            Student #4:  “I don’t know.  I just put it down…  Two times five is ten and a dime is ten

        cents and a nickel is five cents…  Was I supposed to put that in there?”

 

Even when the students found success using guess and check, they often could not apply their solution’s logic to the symbolic representations.  They could explain their reasoning for the guess and check strategy, but this explanation did not reveal their mistakes in their algebraic systems.  Only one of the four students was able to remedy her mistakes after explaining her guess and check solution.

 

In general, the 8th graders seemed to attach a stigma to the very concept of “word problems.”  Even though they were told that these were the same problems the 6th graders were working on, the students were a little anxious before beginning.  It is interesting to observe the lack of confidence in the 8th grade students that did not really appear with the 6th grade students.

 

Overall Strategies

 

Guess and check was the most prevalent strategy used in the problem-solving sessions.  It was used consistently by several students and showed general success.  It seems to be the most intuitive approach.  Using this method, the students seem more likely to give good explanations of their reasoning and techniques.  Most of the students who used the guess and check method organized their thinking using charts. 

 

Many educators promote the teaching of algebra using the “Continuum of Abstraction.”  As a student develops algebraic reasoning, there should be a gradual increase in the level abstraction.  These levels were demonstrated in the choice of strategies in the problem-solving sessions.

 

The least abstract strategy involves the use of manipulatives.  Several of the 6th grade students used the coins to solve or better understand Problem #1.  This hands-on, concrete strategy allows students to touch and visualize the relationships.

 

At the next level, students move on to figures or pictures.  The student who drew pictures of nickels and dimes and used a ruler to sketch rectangles to scale demonstrated this second level of abstractness.  The use of pictures helps to clarify and define an approach to each problem.

 

The highest level involves formal algebraic techniques.  By this point, the students should have the ability to represent algebraic relationships symbolically.  In this project, the algebra students utilized systems of equations paired with the substitution and elimination methods to find the solution to each problem.  Unfortunately, most of the 8th grade students were unable to demonstrate an understanding of the underlying relationships and reasoning behind their techniques.  Somewhere along this continuum, the 8th graders lost their understanding of the connection between each step.  .

 

 

 

GENERAL INSIGHTS

 

In general, the 6th grade students seem free from the constraints of algebra.  They explore their own intuitive methods and are not restricted to a single technique.  These students were much more open to thinking about the problem and utilizing alternative strategies.  Overall, I believe some of the 6th grade students demonstrated an excellent foundation and intuitive understanding of algebraic techniques and relationships.  For example, consider Student #7’s chart used to solve Problem #2(c):

 

 

 

 

 

This student had a clear understanding of the relationships between the quantities involved in this problem.  She knew to multiply the value of the nickel by the number of nickels and add this to the product of the value of a dime and the number of dimes to obtain the total amount of money.  Without any formal algebraic instruction, this student has basically set up an equation that perfectly describes the relationships in this problem.  The 6th graders showed an excellent understanding of the definition and purpose of each quantity, as well as the relationships between them.  In general, the 6th grade students reveal a fine foundation for learning formal algebraic techniques. 

 

Unfortunately, this fundamental understanding seemed to be lost on many of the 8th grade students.  Somewhere between 6th and 8th grade, students are forgetting the underlying meanings and relying on memorized equations and techniques to produce a solution.  The 8th grade students were focused on algebraic techniques.  Often, they would not consider alternative methods even if they were repeatedly unsuccessful.  They continuously focused on equations and procedures with no understanding of the context.  From this study, it appears that curriculum needs to somehow better connect the 6th grade intuitive grasp to the advanced symbolic manipulations.

 

 

 

CHALLENGES FOR TEACHING ALGEBRA

 

From my research, it seems crucial for teachers and mathematics curricula to continue to be open to and support students’ intuitive approaches to algebra.  Students must be given the opportunity and encouragement to try other methods, take risks, and learn by experimenting with algebraic relationships and formulas.  Algebra is inherently procedural, and there is a definite need for the memorization of formulas and methods.  But students need to build upon their intuitive grasp of the fundamental concepts to truly learn and realize the potential of these algebraic techniques.  Students are mostly tested on their ability to regurgitate algebraic methods without any emphasis on explanation, and multiple-choice tests cannot always determine an understanding of the underpinnings of each technique.  From the 8th grade students’ abilities to successfully use guess and check methods, it seems the inherent understanding may be present.  Unfortunately, this comprehension is somehow lost in the memorization of methods and transition to symbolic representation.

 

Teachers must take advantage of students’ prior knowledge.  The 6th grade students in my study demonstrated a wealth of potential for succeeding in algebra.  Somehow, teachers and curricula need to build from intuitive understandings and methods, such as guess and check, to ensure students comprehend the underlying purpose of algebraic techniques.  This should lead to a deeper understanding of their work in algebra.  In the current 6th grade classroom, the use of guess and check methods is greatly encouraged.  Interestingly, several of the 8th grade students had the same 6th grade teacher that I worked with in the study, and students are not connecting the early exploratory methods to what they learn in algebra.

 

In addition, there appears to be a need to contextualize the material and apply the algebra to familiar contexts.  For example, many studies show that students develop the ability to represent algebra verbally before symbolically, contrary to many teaching approaches.  Students are often presented with symbolic rules and methods, and these are then applied to verbal situations.  Some studies suggest that word problems should be introduced first.  In general, it seems clear that algebra must be applied to a situation that students can relate to and truly grasp.

 

With my limited mathematics education experience, I cannot make any sweeping recommendations.  It was exciting to observe that middle school students often do possess an intuitive understanding of algebraic concepts and relationships.  It is important for teachers to encourage and explore this inherent understanding, perhaps by hands-on exploratory activities or allowing students to try to discover the formulas on their own.  Somewhere between 6th grade and the introduction of formal algebraic instruction, students lose that connection between the methods, equations, and variables and their underlying meanings.  If this connection is maintained, students may truly comprehend and appreciate the power of algebra.