Computer Science Department
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Developing a Pedagogical Domain Theory of Early Algebra Problem Solving

Kenneth R. Koedinger, Benjamin A. MacLaren

March 2002

Also appears as Human-Computer Interaction Institute Technical Report

Keywords: Learning, cognitive modeling, cognitive architecture, problem solving, mathematics education, model-data fit

We describe a theory of quantitative representations and processes that makes novel predictions about student problem-solving and learning during the transition from arithmetic to algebraic competence or "early algebra". Our Early Algebra Problem Solving (EAPS) theory comes in the form of a cognitive model within the ACT-R cognitive architecture. As a "pedagogical domain theory", our EAPS theory can be used to make sense of the pattern of difficulties and successes students experience in early algebra problem solving and learning. In particular, the theory provides an explanation for the surprising result that algebra students perform better on certain word problems than on equivalent equations (Koedinger & Nathan, 2000; Nathan & Koedinger, 2000). It also makes explicit the knowledge and knowledge selection processes behind student strategies and errors and provides a theoretical tool for psychologists and mathematics educators to both productively generate and accurately evaluate hypotheses about early algebra learning and instruction. We have abstracted our development process into six model-building constraints that may be appropriate for creating cognitive models of problem solving in other domains.

42 pages

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