Using written work to investigate stages in sixth-grade students’ construction and coordination of units

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Background Students’ ability to construct and coordinate units has been found to have far-reaching implications for their ability to develop sophisticated understandings of key middle-grade mathematical topics such as fractions, ratios, proportions, and algebra, topics that form the base of understanding for most STEM-related fields. Most of the related research on unit coordination relies on time-intensive clinical interviews and teaching experiments. In this study, we investigate the work of 93 sixth-grade students on a written assessment containing whole number and fraction contexts using both continuous and discrete quantities, and how this work can be used to assess stages in students’ construction and coordination of units. Our investigation is guided by the following general research questions: (1) What forms of written work evidence the construction of and operation on composite units (units made up of other units)? (2) How does the categorization of students based on responses from a written assessment compare to written performance on a set of tasks conveying a continuous whole number multiplicative context?

Results We documented the different ways students represented composite units in their written work. In particular, student written work on tasks that included figurative unit items provided the greatest variety of evidence regarding students’ construction of and operation on composite units. However, written evidence from partitioning tasks did not seem as promising for distinguishing student stages. Students’ performance on decontextualized bar tasks involving continuous quantities was found to be consistent with students’ level of unit coordination based on written work providing evidence for the validity of stage categorizations.

Conclusions Our findings shed light on the affordances and constraints associated with particular stages in unit construction and coordination that a student brings to bear on tasks provided in a formal, written assessment. These findings provide promising evidence for scaling up the assessment of students construction and coordination of units through the use of written assessments instead of time-intensive clinical interviews.




International Journal of STEM Education. 2017 Oct 24;4(1):23