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Use of indirect addition in adults’ mental subtraction in the number domain up to 1,000


Joke Torbeyns, Centre for Instructional Psychology and Technology, Vesaliusstraat 2, Box 3770, 3000 Leuven, Belgium (e-mail:


This study examined adults’ use of indirect addition and direct subtraction strategies on multi-digit subtractions in the number domain up to 1,000. Seventy students who differed in their level of arithmetic ability solved multi-digit subtractions in one choice and two no-choice conditions. Against the background of recent findings in elementary subtraction, we manipulated the size of the subtrahend compared to the difference and only selected items with large distances between these two integers. Results revealed that adults frequently and efficiently apply indirect addition on multi-digit subtractions, yet adults with higher arithmetic ability performed more efficiently than those with lower arithmetic ability. In both groups, indirect addition was more efficient than direct subtraction both on subtractions with a subtrahend much larger than the difference (e.g., 713 − 695) and on subtractions with a subtrahend much smaller than the difference (e.g., 613 − 67). Unexpectedly, only adults with lower arithmetic ability fitted their strategy choices to their individual strategy performance skills. Results are interpreted in terms of mathematical and cognitive perspectives on strategy efficiency and adaptiveness.