‘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.