Middle School Students’ Intuitive Approaches to Algebraic Word Problems,

With the Guidance of Dr. Virginia Horak


by Michelle Roehler


Undergraduate Research Project

Fall 2003




How do students approach word problems?  Are students intuitively drawn to algebraic methods, or do their approaches differ from these commonly emphasized techniques?  In this study, I am exploring middle school students’ methods for solving word problems and their utilization of algebra for problem solving.  In many classrooms, students are taught to tackle word problems with specific algorithms for each problem type, and they often develop a reliance on cookie-cutter equations without fully comprehending the underlying problem and the algebra used to solve it.  Since many students do not understand the concepts behind these methods, it is important to explore a student’s inherent approaches to problem solving and algebra.  This study provides insights into middle school students’ grasp of variables and their ability to develop equations with or without previous formal algebraic experience.  It also reveals which techniques are more intuitive to a student and might indicate ways to present algebraic methods that build upon these skills. 




Since this study requires interaction with middle school students at a local Tucson school, I have had to go through an extensive application and approval process to obtain permission to conduct the study.  Thus, this research project remains in progress, and my concrete data at this point is limited.  Much of the research has been focused on previously published studies in addition to the arduous application processes that I will detail later in this paper.


            I was finally granted final permission to conduct my actual research in the middle of November.  Thus, my interaction with the students and teachers has been limited to observation in the final weeks of the semester.  When I observe the classroom, I am able to identify classroom dynamics, study the teacher’s approach and methods for teaching mathematics, and watch the students’ responses.  My observations also allow the students to become more comfortable with my presence in the classroom, which will hopefully make them more talkative and at ease during any one-on-one sessions with me in the future.


To obtain my research data, I will be working with students individually in a problem-solving session.  My study includes five 6th grade students with little or no previous formal algebraic exposure and five 8th grade students who have had formal experience with algebra.  I am working with one 6th grade and one 8th grade teacher, and they have selected the students for the study from their own classrooms.  The 6th grade group includes a mixture of mathematical proficiencies, while the 8th grade group is composed of students in the advanced algebra class.


I will be conducting a problem-solving session with each individual student in a quiet area free from distraction.  First, I will ask the student some questions to “break the ice,” such as their feelings about math or their favorite subject.  Then, I have three word problems for the student to solve one at a time.  I will present him or her with two word problems that can be represented algebraically and one geometry problem that can be solved using algebraic methods.  Each student will have available materials to aid them in solving the problem such as tiles, rulers, graphing paper, and a calculator.  The students will be free to use these materials instead of utilizing an algebraic approach if they desire.  After going through the problem requirements and ensuring the student understands what is expected, the student will work on each problem alone.  I will observe how each student sets up and finds the solution to the problem, paying close attention to the tools utilized.  When the problem is completed or the student decides that they are finished, I will have the student explain their problem solving strategies, elaborating on what they are doing at each step and why they chose each method.  In the end, I will be able to use the data collected to identify students’ intuitive approaches to algebra and their ability to grasp algebraic concepts such as equations and variables.  Each session will be recorded on audiotape, and I will be taking notes and observing throughout the process.  I anticipate approximately 30 minutes per session.  For exact details on the methodology, see the Application Process section.




             In developing my methodology and defining details for the problem-solving sessions, I utilized past studies and examples from various textbooks, my own priorities for research, and the experience and knowledge of my advisor, Professor Virginia Horak.  I am not alone in pursuing this style of research, and I have gained much insight from others’ research on similar topics.  Articles such as those mentioned below have provided extremely helpful ideas and strategies for conducting the problem-solving sessions, predicting results, and analyzing my observations.  For instance, my research on the use of word problems to define intuitive algebraic understanding led me to use story problems with familiar, easy to understand contexts in my research.  Also, I was able to use past studies and the school district’s textbooks to formulate word problems for the sessions.  I observed which styles were most indicative of algebraic understanding, and built from examples in textbooks that took into account the 6th grade student’s basic mathematical knowledge.  Thus, I have three problems that build upon different algebraic skills at different levels of varying levels of understanding (see selected word problems). 


From Professor Horak’s educational research experiences and my own background research, we built a methodology that should put the students at ease and truly give insight into their algebraic problem solving abilities.  My interview questions are based upon other related research experiences and my own investigational needs.  I tried to pose them in a way that will encourage conversation and identify each student’s strategies and possible uses of algebra.  When I have obtained data from the problem-solving sessions, I will be able to identify intuitive algebraic techniques, if any, and apply them to possible teaching strategies. 




            The most significant portion of my time this semester has been spent gaining approval to conduct the study.  This process included a training program for working with human subjects, an approval process through the University of Arizona to conduct the research, an approval process through the school district, a proposal and interview with the principal of the school I am working with, and, finally, I had to gain permission from the teachers.  For those interested in conducting a similar study, I will detail the application process.


Since I will be working with middle school students for my research, it is necessary to obtain approval from the University of Arizona’s Institutional Review Board.  To ensure the protection of all research subjects, the Vice President for Research to the Human Subjects Committee must approve all aspects of the research process.  Thus, there is significant paperwork and training to accomplish before an investigator can have any contact with the human subjects.  First, all investigators must complete the Human Subjects Training.  The university provides a training manual that gives detailed explanations of the methods and bureaucracy required to perform research with human subjects, policies and regulations, how to gain and maintain approval for your research, and other topics.  Upon completion of the manual, the investigator must pass the Human Subjects test with at least an 85%.  Once Human Subjects Training is completed, you move into the Project Approval process.


            The next step is to obtain approval from the Institutional Review Board at the University of Arizona.  In the Project Approval process, the investigator must explicitly state every aspect of the proposed research.  This includes all methodology, potential interview questions, a description of all observations, and precise details such as the number of subjects and the rationale for their selection.  You must also include a copy of your proposed consent form for the parents and students and clearly state how consent is to be obtained and honored throughout the project.  In addition, I had to submit a recruitment script for presenting the project to the selected students.  The necessary paperwork is then sent through a preliminary critique, and the proposals are usually sent back repeatedly for corrections or additions.  Every detail is thoroughly scrutinized.  I was fortunate to only be required to do one extensive revision.  When your application is deemed as perfect as possible, it goes to committee for final approval.  I gained approval for my project from the Review Board on November 4.  To view the final application and detailed methodology, click here.


I also had to undergo an approval process through the school district’s Office of Accountability and Research before I could enter a classroom or approach the principal or teachers.  The district requires its own forms, but they are much less severe and detailed than the University’s.  To view the approved school district application, click here. 


After receiving approval from the University and school district, Professor Horak and I met with the principal at the middle school where we hoped to conduct the research.  The principal was very supportive and offered suggestions that might aid us in the problem-solving sessions.  After obtaining the principal’s permission, we approached the two teachers.  Each teacher has shown great interest in and support for our project, and they have been extremely helpful and pleasant to work with thus far.




            Much of my research has involved examining related research from other sources.  These findings influenced the framework of my research approach, gave me insight into the current mathematical standards and pertinent issues in teaching, and suggested possible results or factors to identify while working with the students and processing my data.  I will summarize some of the important results from previous studies that have impacted my research.


            Past studies have revealed that children can grasp algebraic concepts at an early age if algebra problems are presented in intuitive ways.  In his work “Algebraic Problem Solving in the Primary Grades,” Robert Fermiano presents the theory that “even though primary-grade students may lack the formal level of thinking required to ‘efficiently’ solve equations, algebraic reasoning is still possible when approached in less sterile and more practical ways” (Fermiano 1).  Studying his own classroom of first through third grades, he proposed that if equations are put into concrete situations, children can more easily grasp the problem and use their intuitions to find a solution.  He takes almost every aspect of mathematics in his classroom and puts it into a problem-solving setting (Fermiano 1).  When problems are put into a story format, children are more apt to understand the problem, and their informal, intuitive approaches provide the basis for understanding the fundamental concepts of algebra.  When an algebra problem is presented in symbolic form, students are often intimidated and have no real instinct for solving the problem without the memorized methods available to older students (Fermiano 2).  Fermiano suggests that algebraic problem solving is crucial for a child’s development of mathematical skills, and the process of learning algebraic techniques must be built from the child’s “discovery” and intuitive concepts of algebra (Fermiano 4).  Thus, using word problems may provide a much more insightful view of the students’ inherent understanding of algebra and its fundamental concepts since they cater to a child’s innate mathematical responses. 


            On a similar note, Mitchell Nathan and Kenneth Koedinger suggest that contrary to many curriculums, students develop verbal problem solving skills, i.e. the ability to work with word problems, before they can comprehend symbolic problems (Nathan 2).  In their study, teachers repeatedly ranked word problems as the most difficult, but students showed surprising skill with these verbal problems, indicating that perhaps these skills develop before “symbolic reasoning” (Nathan 3).  These results have a huge impact on teaching strategies for algebra.  Nathan and Koedinger recommend teaching strategies that build more upon the student’s informal methods for solutions and the student’s verbal skills (Nathan 3).  When students build their own methods, they have a more in-depth understanding of the concepts.  Formal methods and symbolic representations should build upon these informal methods.  Alternative strategies, such as guess-and-check, help students discover fundamental algebraic concepts on their own, and building on the student’s inherent understanding will greatly enhance their mathematical success.


            Lesley R. Booth further explored some of the problems at the core of algebra learning in her article, “Children’s Difficulties in Beginning Algebra” (Booth 20).  Instead of focusing on a student’s innate understanding of the algebra problem, Booth presents common misconceptions about algebra that appear frequently throughout middle and high school.  Her study revealed some of the students’ struggles regarding the significance of a variable and its value in relation to arithmetic.  Students often do not feel that a problem has a solution if it contains variables; there is no concrete “final answer” for them to achieve (Booth 23).  Many students explained that, unless explicitly stated, a variable has no value, and many difficulties arise when students attempt to apply this confusing value to arithmetic.  In a different way, several students replaced a letter variable with its position in the alphabet or adamantly stated that two variables cannot have the same value if they are represented by different variables; there was also an insistence that the variable must start with the same letter as the unknown quantity  (Booth 22).  This coincides with the arguments in the previous articles that students often struggle with symbolic representation in general, and I have read several studies that reveal difficulties in algebra arising from these symbolic misconceptions.  


Though she admits that many children utilize informal methods to understand algebra concepts, Booth was wary about allowing students to rely on these methods.  There must be a balance between visualizing the problem and defining a procedure.  She proposed that “if students are to learn (and use) the more formal procedures, they must first see the need for them” (Booth 31).  She suggested that teachers should be aware of possible informal methods used by the students, and there should be discussion regarding the usefulness and limitations of the informal methods (Booth 31).  Thus, this article indicated a need for a combination of formal and informal teaching methods to obtain maximum algebraic understanding for beginning algebra students.  


Harold L. Schoen, in his work on “Teaching Elementary Algebra with a Word Problem Focus,” presented his belief that “it is possible to focus on interesting applications and word problems in the teaching of first-year algebra without deleting important topics” (Schoen 120).  In his article, Schoen presented several recommendations for teaching a first-year algebra course.  First, he recommended that teachers should “build new learning on students’ existing knowledge and understanding” (Shoen 120).  Students enter an algebra course with a significant amount of prior mathematical knowledge.  He suggested that basic topics such as areas and percentages should be re-introduced with an algebraic focus to build on concepts the students already know (Schoen 121).  Second, Schoen urged that teaching should “lead gradually from verbalization to algebraic symbolism” (Schoen 121).  By using word problems and verbal representations, teachers can better connect the underlying concept to the symbolic representation.  In addition, he recommends that teachers “introduce algebraic topics with applications” and teach these topics “from the perspective of how they can be applied” (Schoen 122,123).  This does not only enhance understanding of how the concept works; it also shows the student its usefulness in real life.  Overall, Shoen argued that the use of word problems in the classroom is beneficial to developing an understanding of symbolic representations.  He proposed the use of word problems to provide application to algebraic methods, and  insisted that implementing a word problem focus in the mathematics classroom is extremely feasible.


            In her article entitled “Developing Algebraic Reasoning in the Elementary Grades,” Jinfa Cai used a cross-national comparison to point out the need for increased development of algebraic strategies at the elementary level to give students a better grasp of problem solving (Cai 1).  In a comparison between the U.S., Japan, and China, fourth and sixth graders from the U.S. repeatedly avoided algebraic techniques, while students of the same age from China and Japan used algebra much more frequently in problem solving (Cai 2).  The fact that any students of this age would use algebra reveals that algebraic concepts can be taught and understood at the elementary level.  Thus, to enhance their problem solving abilities, students should be well exposed to algebra before middle or high school.


Cai explained the differences in problem-solving techniques by citing different teaching methods.  In the U.S., there is an emphasis on concrete methods and examples, while Chinese educators focus on a student’s understanding of the concept, not necessarily the visual example.  Chinese students are asked to solve a problem both arithmetically and algebraically, and then discuss the differences and similarities (Cai 3).  According to Cai, this method helps students to gain a deeper comprehension of the quantitative relationships, enhances their thinking skills and dexterity with different problem solving approaches, and helps students discover the similarities and differences between methods on their own (Cai 3).  Overall, Cai seemed to advocate the introduction of algebraic concepts at the elementary level with a shift from the traditional concrete visual representations of algebra to more abstract conceptual representations.  Again, there is a push to introduce algebra at a younger level to enhance a student’s future mathematical abilities.  To become more successful at problem solving, algebraic skills are a necessity, but letting students explore alternate methods will further enhance their conceptual understanding.


The most influential and helpful past research for this project thus far comes from Jane Swafford and Cynthia Langrall’s article entitled “Grade 6 Students’ Preinstructional Use of Equations to Describe and Represent Problem Situations.”  Swafford and Langrall studied 6th grade students’ ability to use equations to “describe and represent problem situations prior to formal instruction in algebra” (Swafford 1).  In my research, I am focusing on the students’ intuitive techniques, while this study uses directed questions that have the child construct equations and identify how they obtain a solution.  First, the investigators had the students express the general case verbally.  Then, the students were asked to use variables to represent the relationships in the problem.  Lastly, the researchers determined if and how the students would use these symbolic representations to obtain their solution (Swafford 2).  The students were given six word problems that represented different mathematical concepts, such as linear relationships and proportionality (Swafford  3).  Similar to our research, Langrall and Swafford utilized an audiotape recording, the students’ written work, and interview notes for analysis.  In their research, the investigator walked through several tasks with the students.  I will simply observe the students on their own, and then I will have them explain their methodology when they are finished.


Swafford and Langrall discovered that “sixth-grade students in this study showed a remarkable ability to generalize problem situations by describing relationships and writing appropriate equations using variables” (Swafford 6).  On the other hand, students were more able to represent the relationships verbally than symbolically, and few used their equations, even if correct, to obtain a solution (Swafford 6).  These results coincide with Nathan and Koedinger’s belief that the ability to represent a problem verbally is more inherent than the symbolic representations.  Also, Swafford and Langall observed that students were very able to generalize familiar arithmetic situations, and proposed that “middle school students would benefit from more experiences with a rich variety of multiplicative situations” (Swafford 9).  Similar to Cai, they suggested that teachers should focus more on changing values within the same context instead of giving examples of several different problems in different contexts (Swafford 9).  In Swafford and Langall’s study, the children had difficulty seeing their equations as “mathematical objects,” and they were not confident while working with variables (Swafford 10).  Thus, there seems to be a definite intuitive understanding of algebraic relationships and equations, but students have difficulties applying the symbolic representations to their problem-solving methods.  This indicates that curricular changes might help bridge this gap between students’ inherent comprehension of algebra and the formal symbolic representations and concepts.




            With the limited time remaining in the semester after gaining approval to enter the classroom, I have only had the opportunity to observe the 6th grade class.  There is a casual feel to the classroom, and the desks are grouped into clusters instead of rows.  Colorful prints adorn the walls, and an expansion of pi runs along the top of the chalkboard. 


The 6th grade teacher utilizes more “untraditional” teaching methods.  In each class period I observed, there was little or no lecture.  Every concept was introduced in a hands-on format, and the teacher presented each mathematical concept with some sort of visual aid.  Some tasks demonstrated the basics of algebra, but they were disguised as fun, exploratory activities. 


In the 3rd period class, the student sitting next to me explained each activity.   For instance, there is an activity called “Hands-on Equations” that uses a picture of a scale, different colored game pieces, and number tiles.  The game pieces represent “unknowns” and the number tiles represent values that will be added to each side of the scale.  The goal is to “balance” the equation with tiles on one side and game pieces on the other.  The student I worked with declared, “This is a fun one!” and was eager to finish all of her problems.  For the most part, there is considerable class participation and plenty of volunteers to answer questions.  The students get excited when they discover the answer, and the teacher intermingles written work with the hands-on examples.


I expect that this classroom will differ greatly from the 8th grade algebra students.  From the principal’s comments, I learned that the algebra teacher utilizes more “traditional” methods, and the classroom has a more orderly feel.  I look forward to working with the 8th grade class early in the spring semester.


It will be interesting to identify any differences that these mathematical backgrounds may produce in the problem-solving sessions.  It is probable that the 6th grade students will use alternative methods that model algebraic techniques, while the 8th grade students might incline toward a more procedural approach.  Regardless, the 6th grade students have had no formal algebraic instruction, and the diverse classroom situations may not affect the results.  I predict that the 8th grade students will utilize standardized methods similar to those from my own traditional mathematical upbringing.  Overall, the problem-solving sessions will reveal which techniques are more inherent to a beginning algebra student and those that become engrained after formal algebraic exposure.  Since each student must explain his or her methods to me after they are finished with each problem, I will gain significant insight into his or her true understanding.




            By the time spring semester starts at the University, the excitement of winter break should have died down at the middle school.  I hope to be in the classrooms by the second week of the semester resuming my observations.  As soon as possible, the teachers will be contacting the students’ parents and sending home consent forms for their participation in the research project.  When the consent forms are signed and collected, I will begin the individual problem-solving sessions.  The teachers have given me permission to excuse each student from class for a 30-minute session.  Since there are ten students total, these sessions will probably be scattered over several days.  I will work with each teacher to find times when the impact of lost class time will be minimized.  As each problem-solving session is completed, I can begin to transcribe the interviews and analyze the data.  I hope to continue the classroom observations throughout the semester to obtain a better understanding of the teaching methods and environments.  The arduous application process delayed my opportunity to begin collecting significant data, and I am very eager to resume interacting with the students next semester.  








Booth, Leslie R.  “Children’s Difficulties in Beginning Algebra.”  The Ideas of Algebra, K-12. 

National Council of Mathematics Teachers, 1988.


Cai, Jinfa.  “Developing Algebraic Reasoning in the Elementary Grades”.  Teaching Children

Mathematics 5:4, December 1998.


Femiano, Robert B.  “Algebraic Problem Solving in the Primary Grades.”  Teaching Children

Mathematics 9:8, April 2003.


Nathan, Mitchell J., and Kenneth R. Koedinger.  “Teachers’ and Researchers’ Beliefs About the

Development of Algebraic Reasoning.”  Mathematics Teacher 93:3, March 2000.


Schoen, Harold.  “Teaching Elementary Algebra with a Word Problem Focus.”  The Ideas of

Algebra, K-12.  National Council of Mathematics Teachers, 1988.


Swafford, Jane O., and Cynthia W. Langrall.  “Grade 6 Students’ Preinstructional Use of

Equations to Describe and Represent Problem Situations.”  Journal for Research in

Mathematics Education 31:1, January 2000.