An eye for relations: eye-tracking indicates long-term negative effects of operational thinking on understanding of math equivalence

Mem Cognit. 2013 Oct;41(7):1079-95. doi: 10.3758/s13421-013-0315-8.


Prior knowledge in the domain of mathematics can sometimes interfere with learning and performance in that domain. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is in students' difficulties solving equations with operations on both sides of the equal sign. Elementary school children in the U.S. typically acquire incorrect, operational schemata rather than correct, relational schemata for interpreting equations. Researchers have argued that these operational schemata are never unlearned and can continue to affect performance for years to come, even after relational schemata are learned. In the present study, we investigated whether and how operational schemata negatively affect undergraduates' performance on equations. We monitored the eye movements of 64 undergraduate students while they solved a set of equations that are typically used to assess children's adherence to operational schemata (e.g., 3 + 4 + 5 = 3 + __). Participants did not perform at ceiling on these equations, particularly when under time pressure. Converging evidence from performance and eye movements showed that operational schemata are sometimes activated instead of relational schemata. Eye movement patterns reflective of the activation of relational schemata were specifically lacking when participants solved equations by adding up all the numbers or adding the numbers before the equal sign, but not when they used other types of incorrect strategies. These findings demonstrate that the negative effects of acquiring operational schemata extend far beyond elementary school.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Educational Measurement
  • Eye Movement Measurements
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mathematical Concepts*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Young Adult