Are diagrams always helpful tools? Developmental and individual differences in the effect of presentation format on student problem solving
Article first published online: 18 JUL 2011
©2011 The British Psychological Society
British Journal of Educational Psychology
Volume 82, Issue 3, pages 492–511, September 2012
How to Cite
Booth, J. L. and Koedinger, K. R. (2012), Are diagrams always helpful tools? Developmental and individual differences in the effect of presentation format on student problem solving. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 82: 492–511. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02041.x
- Issue published online: 6 AUG 2012
- Article first published online: 18 JUL 2011
- Received 14 April 2010; revised version received 3 June 2011
Background. High school and college students demonstrate a verbal, or textual, advantage whereby beginning algebra problems in story format are easier to solve than matched equations (Koedinger & Nathan, 2004). Adding diagrams to the stories may further facilitate solution (Hembree, 1992; Koedinger & Terao, 2002). However, diagrams may not be universally beneficial (Ainsworth, 2006; Larkin & Simon, 1987).
Aims. To identify developmental and individual differences in the use of diagrams, story, and equation representations in problem solving. When do diagrams begin to aid problem-solving performance? Does the verbal advantage replicate for younger students?
Sample. Three hundred and seventy-three students (121 sixth, 117 seventh, 135 eighth grade) from an ethnically diverse middle school in the American Midwest participated in Experiment 1. In Experiment 2, 84 sixth graders who had participated in Experiment 1 were followed up in seventh and eighth grades.
Method. In both experiments, students solved algebra problems in three matched presentation formats (equation, story, story + diagram).
Results. The textual advantage was replicated for all groups. While diagrams enhance performance of older and higher ability students, younger and lower-ability students do not benefit, and may even be hindered by a diagram's presence.
Conclusions. The textual advantage is in place by sixth grade. Diagrams are not inherently helpful aids to student understanding and should be used cautiously in the middle school years, as students are developing competency for diagram comprehension during this time.