‘Personalizing’ helps kids solve math problems

“Personalizing” algebra questions — using a sports or music context, let’s say, instead of farming — helps students, according to Southern Methodist University researchers whose latest study is slated for publication in Journal of Educational Psychology.

Struggling students are easily discouraged by new problems and distracted by unfamiliar words, said Professor Candace Walkington.

She asked ninth graders who were using Cognitive Tutor software about their interests in areas such as sports, music, and movies. Then she randomly assigned them to take the linear-equation unit with standard word problems or one of four variations tailored to their interests.

The students who received personalized word problems solved them faster and more accurately than students who received the standard questions, particularly when it came to translating the story scenarios into symbolic equations.

Moreover, the strongest effects occurred for students who were struggling the most before personalization.

“Problems that required a relatively high reading level and more-challenging knowledge components, those were the steps of the problem that were particularly affected by the personalization,” (Carnegie Learning founder Steven) Ritter noted during the Sept. 12 discussion at Carnegie Mellon.

“It kind of makes sense if you think [about it], if you’re a big sports fan … you are probably better able to read things about sports because you understand the vocabulary, you understand the situations, and for you, the readability is better,” he said.

Core Knowledge’s E.D. Hirsch would predict this: Students need background knowledge to understand what they read. If students are struggling to read a story problem, they won’t have much mental energy left to tackle the math.

Here are five variations of the set-up to a math problem:

One method for estimating the cost of new home construction is based on the proposed square footage of the home. Locally, the average cost per square foot is estimated to be $46.50.

You are working at the ticket office for a college football team. Each ticket to the first home football game costs $46.50.

You are helping to organize a concert where some local R&B artists will be performing. Each ticket to the concert costs $46.50.

You have been working for the school yearbook, taking pictures and designing pages, and now it’s time for the school to sell the yearbooks for $46.50 each.

You work for a Best Buy store that is selling the newest Rock Band game for $46.50.

SOURCE: Candace A. Walkington, Southern Methodist University

Surprisingly, students who’d received “personalized” questions did better two months later on a new unit without personalized questions.

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  1. FTA:

    “If [a student is] already pretty fluent in math and has a high level of interest in math,” Ms. Walkington said, “it doesn’t really matter how you dress up the problem, they see it as what it is: a math problem, linear equation in this case.”

    Struggling learners, by contrast, often had little self-confidence in math. They weren’t sure how to approach problems and often wouldn’t even attempt them, even if they had just completed similar problems in class.

    If algebra is to be of any use in the world, the essential skill is recognizing what mathematical principle is at work in a problem.  Dressing things up to be “personally relevant” is just going to turn algebra into one more thing that students never use after they leave school (as if it isn’t already for 90% of them)

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Alternately, dressing things up can be a useful bridge until the student can see the underlying similarity between Bob having more ponies, firetrucks or hand grenades than Alice.

  2. Gotta agree with the Engineer, but some of us are PAID to get students from “struggling” to “fluent.” I’d do interpretive dance if it made the math/stats connection.

    I’m really not looking forward to personalizing my test bank, but it comes with the territory. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the innovation that will push another 1 or 2% of my students to get hip to biostatistics. Like I ask my students: “How can I ever get any work done if I have to spend time helping you LEARN something?”

  3. This can work 2 ways – first, showing kids that they’ll actually use a skill makes them more interested in learning it, and once they know it they can (hopefully) apply it elsewhere. Another thing that I found when tutoring is that kids often can do the math in their heads but don’t know what they’re doing. A student who was flummoxed by negative numbers did fine when I equated it with owing money vs being paid. There’s a reason why fractions are often taught with pizza or pie, and most students are able to figure out who owes how much to somebody who picked up movie tickets, they just don’t know how to write it down as an equation.

  4. Chartermom says:

    I chuckled when I read this. My mother who taught sixth grade in the 50’s always talked about how she got the boys to learn percentages by relating them to batting averages. (Not sure what she did with the girls). Her point was that the boys got more excited and more interested in the subject when they saw how it related to something that interested them. She could then move into other uses of percentages once they had mastered the basics using sports. And i seem to remember by 1960’s and 1970’s teachers using similar techniques when introducing new concepts.

    This just seems like a newer high tech way (computerized question banks) to implement an old technique.

    • “Batman” was one of the first words that my hero-obsessed little guy could decode, and it made all the difference in the world.

  5. Eric Jablow says:

    It’s like this even for adult mathematical scientists. For example, scenarios in cryptography always involve two people, Alice and Bob, not A and B. Sometimes Eve the Eavesdropper shows up.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    This dude is selling some stuff. The stuff costs $46.50 per unit of stuff.