Death to Story Problems!

April 26, 2008 | Blog

A new randomized, controlled experiment suggests that using real-world examples to teach mathematics concepts may be the wrong way to go. The study found that the use of story problems can obscure the underlying math and leaves students unable to transfer their knowledge to new problems. One such example is the oft-used two trains departing from different cities at different speeds. More preferable are approaches that teach math using abstract, generic symbols.

The authors of the study are Jennifer A. Kaminski, Vladimir M. Sloutsky, and Andrew F. Heckler from Ohio State University. It appears in the April 25, 2008 edition of the journal Science.

Link to the NY Times article
Link to the study


  1. Reply


    April 26, 2008

    I'm not sure that the study tells us much about K-12 math instruction since it's a study of undergraduates.

  2. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    April 26, 2008

    Liam didn't say anything about k-12 instruction. It seems reasonable to use lessons from undergraduates to think about how to teach high school students (at least juniors and seniors, and especially those that are college-bound). But I agree, the learning processes of elementary school students are likely different.

  3. Reply

    Sherman Dorn

    April 27, 2008

    Eduwonkette and Corey Bower are right: there is much less here than meets the eye. See Sowell's 1989 meta-analysis, which the researchers and the NY Times reporter apparently failed to look for.

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