Toward a theoretical account of strategy use and sense-making in mathematics problem solving

In Ashwin Ram & Kurt Eiselt (eds.), Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Erlbaum (1994)
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Much problem solving and learning research in math and science has focused on formal representations. Recently researchers have documented the use of unschooled strategies for solving daily problems -- informal strategies which can be as effective, and sometimes as sophisticated, as school-taught formalisms. Our research focuses on how formal and informal strategies interact in the process of doing and learning mathematics. We found that combining informal and formal strategies is more effective than single strategies. We provide a theoretical account of this multiple strategy effect and have begun to formulate this theory in an ACT-R computer model. We show why students may reach common impasses in the use of written algebra, and how subsequent or concurrent use of informal strategies leads to better problem-solving performance. Formal strategies facilitate computation because of their abstract and syntactic nature; however, abstraction can lead to nonsensical interpretations and conceptual errors. Reapplying the formal strategy will not repair such errors; switching to an informal one may. We explain the multiple strategy effect as a complementary relationship between the computational efficiency of formal strategies and the sense-making function of informal strategies.
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