Improving performance on arithmetic word problems

iStock_000004077966XSmallWhen assigned a word problem, many middle school students assume that all the facts and figures are vital to the solution of the problem. This may be why most studies show that problems which include extraneous information are less likely to be solved successfully. K. Denise Muth, University of Georgia, sought to determine the effect that alerting students to the possible presence of extraneous information would have on their performance.

Sixty 8th grade students were randomly divided into three groups. ¬†Each group was given a 14-item word problem test adapted from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These word problems dealt with distance, interest, perimeter of a rectangle, area of a rectangle, circumference, area of a circle and volume. The first version of the test was made up of problems which contained no extraneous information. The second version included problems with extraneous information. The third version was identical to the second, but with the addition of the caveat: “as you work, keep in mind that word problems sometimes contain numbers that are not needed to get the correct answer.”

Results showed that student performance varied significantly between the three tests. In comparing the test results of the first and second versions, students, as expected, performed significantly better on the first test, which contained no extraneous information. However, those students in the third group who were cued to the possibility of extraneous information, scored as well as students in the first group.

Cuing students to the possible presence of extraneous information appears to be an effective way of helping them perform better. Muth encourages educators to include extraneous information in word problems on a regular basis and to train students to be aware of the possibility that extraneous information may be present. Muth believes this will aid in preparing students to deal with the kind of applied math problems they will encounter outside school.

“Effects of Cuing on Middle School Students’ Performance on Arithmetic Word Problems Containing Extraneous Information” Journal of Educational Psychology March 1991 Volume 83, Number 1, p. 173-174

Published in ERN May/June 1991 Volume 4 Number 3


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