Why does placing the question before an arithmetic word problem improve performance? A situation model account

Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2007 Jan;60(1):43-56. doi: 10.1080/17470210600587927.


The aim of this paper is to investigate the controversial issue of the nature of the representation constructed by individuals to solve arithmetic word problems. More precisely, we consider the relevance of two different theories: the situation or mental model theory (Johnson-Laird, 1983; Reusser, 1989) and the schema theory (Kintsch & Greeno, 1985; Riley, Greeno, & Heller, 1983). Fourth-graders who differed in their mathematical skills were presented with problems that varied in difficulty and with the question either before or after the text. We obtained the classic effect of the position of the question, with better performance when the question was presented prior to the text. In addition, this effect was more marked in the case of children who had poorer mathematical skills and in the case of more difficult problems. We argue that this pattern of results is compatible only with the situation or mental model theory, and not with the schema theory.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Child
  • Concept Formation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / physiology
  • Mathematics*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Psychological Theory
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Task Performance and Analysis*