Pictorial representations of simple arithmetic problems are not always helpful: a cognitive load perspective

Ernest C.D.M. van Lieshout*, Iro Xenidou-Dervou

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Abstract

At the start of mathematics education children are often presented with addition and subtraction problems in the form of pictures. They are asked to solve the problems by filling in corresponding number sentences. One type of problem concerns the representation of an increase or a decrease in a depicted amount. A decrease is, however, more difficult to represent in paper pictorially than an increase. Within the Cognitive Load Theory framework, we expected that commonly used decrease problems would be harder and slower to solve than increase problems because of higher intrinsic cognitive load. We also hypothesised that combining the pictorial information with auditory information would reduce this load and, as a result, would lead to improved performance. We further expected that these effects would be most prominent in children who score below average on a general mathematics test. We conducted an experiment with sixty children attending the first grade of primary school, who were divided into a higher and lower mathematics-achieving group. As expected, children performed worse on the decrease problems compared to the increase problems. Also, the combination of pictorial and auditory information reduced the accuracy lag of the decrease problems compared to the increase problems. With response time this effect occurred only in the group of lower mathematics achieving children. These results are in line with the cognitive load theory framework, but we also offer an alternative explanation regarding attention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-55
Number of pages17
JournalEducational Studies in Mathematics
Volume98
Issue number1
Early online date4 Feb 2018
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2018

Keywords

  • Arithmetic
  • Cognitive load theory
  • Mathematical word problems
  • Modality effect
  • Pictures
  • Primary school

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