Word problems in mathematics education: a survey

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Word problems are among the most difficult kinds of problems that mathematics learners encounter. Perhaps as a result, they have been the object of a tremendous amount research over the past 50 years. This opening article gives an overview of the research literature on word problem solving, by pointing to a number of major topics, questions, and debates that have dominated the field. After a short introduction, we begin with research that has conceived word problems primarily as problems of comprehension, and we describe the various ways in which this complex comprehension process has been conceived theoretically as well as the empirical evidence supporting different theoretical models. Next we review research that has focused on strategies for actually solving the word problem. Strengths and weaknesses of informal and formal solution strategies—at various levels of learners’ mathematical development (i.e., arithmetic, algebra)—are discussed. Fourth, we address research that thinks of word problems as exercises in complex problem solving, requiring the use of cognitive strategies (heuristics) as well as metacognitive (or self-regulatory) strategies. The fifth section concerns the role of graphical representations in word problem solving. The complex and sometimes surprising results of research on representations—both self-made and externally provided ones—are summarized and discussed. As in many other domains of mathematics learning, word problem solving performance has been shown to be significantly associated with a number of general cognitive resources such as working memory capacity and inhibitory skills. Research focusing on the role of these general cognitive resources is reviewed afterwards. The seventh section discusses research that analyzes the complex relationship between (traditional) word problems and (genuine) mathematical modeling tasks. Generally, this research points to the gap between the artificial word problems learners encounter in their mathematics lessons, on the one hand, and the authentic mathematical modeling situations with which they are confronted in real life, on the other hand. Finally, we review research on the impact of three important elements of the teaching/learning environment on the development of learners’ word problem solving competence: textbooks, software, and teachers. It is shown how each of these three environmental elements may support or hinder the development of learners’ word problem solving competence. With this general overview of international research on the various perspectives on this complex and fascinating kind of mathematical problem, we set the scene for the empirical contributions on word problems that appear in this special issue.

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Verschaffel, L., Schukajlow, S., Star, J. et al. Word problems in mathematics education: a survey. ZDM Mathematics Education (2020).

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