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I find this fascinating. This student clearly knows how that multiplying the base and the height of a rectangle gives you its area. She even knows how to multiply fraction. But when it comes to part (d), she adds the numbers instead of multiplying them.

In earlier writing I hypothesized that, when put in unfamiliar situations, students often default to an “easier” operation. This idea now seems problematic to me. What, after all, is an “easier” operation any way? And what exactly would trigger this default to some other operation? And how do we explain why competent adults — like me — make similar mistakes on my own work?

It now seems more likely to me that we associate certain pairs of numbers with certain operations. Think about the numbers 100 and 1/2. I’d suggest that most people have an association of “50” with 100 and 1/2. After all, how often have you been asked to add 100 and 1/2 together? How often have you been asked to subtract 1/2 from 100? In contrast, how often have you been asked to find 1/2 of 100?

How often have you been asked to multiply 5 1/2 and 2 1/4 together? My guess is that you — and the student above — have been asked to add these sorts of mixed numbers more often than multiply them.

The idea here is that the pairs of numbers themselves come with associations.

There’s a hard version of this claim that I don’t mean to make. I don’t mean to say that, no matter the context, you’d expect a student to add 5 1/2 and 2 1/4 together. I think a division problem with mixed numbers is unlikely to trigger associations with addition. Maybe I’m moving towards a two-part model? The sorts of mistakes we make with numbers depends both on the associations with the operation and also associations with the numbers? And things get really bad when these two associations point in the same direction?

This theory feels very testable, but at the moment I’m having a hard time articulating a possible test of it. But we should be able to mess with people’s associations with numbers and see if that changes the sorts of mistakes that they make. Ideas?

  • Hao Ye

    I think your explanation makes a lot of sense. We know that you can alter people’s decision-making based on context. No doubt the same sort of process can easily apply for math problems. I have seen several instances where students solve for the wrong quantity on geometry problems, because the question was misread as asking for area instead of height, etc.

  • Will

    context is important! I remember being unfairly confused at times as a young math student. And doubly confused when the math teacher was wrong thinking there was a single solution.