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# Elementary students recognition of algebraic structure: Not all tasks are created equal Abstract This paper reports

1. In the number sentence 3 + 4 = 7, what is the name of the symbol =? What does the symbol = mean? 2. Fill in the blanks with the value that makes the following number sentences true. How did you get your answer? a) 7 + 3 = ____ + 4 Why? b) 5 + 3 = ____ + 3 Why? 3. Circle True or False and explain your choice. a) 57 + 22 = 58 + 21 How do you know? b) 39 + 121 = 121 + 39 How do you know? 4. The following number sentence is true: 15 + 8 = 23. Is 15 + 8 + 12 = 23 + 12 true or false? How do you know? Figure 1. Equal sign and equation structure tasks. Data Analysis In this section, we share information about the coding of each item. For all four items, responses that students left blank, or for which they responded I dont know were grouped into a no response category, while responses that were not sufficiently frequent to constitute their own codes were placed into an other category. Student responses to Items 2-4 that included no explanation were placed into an answer only category. The first question in Item 1, What is the name of the symbol? was asked to prevent students from using the name of the symbol in their response to the second prompt, What does the symbol mean?. Student responses to this second prompt were coded as relational if they expressed the idea that the equal sign means the same as and as operational if they expressed the idea that the equal sign means something like add the numbers. A third code, equals, was used to categorize vague responses such as equal to or it means equals. Student responses to Items 2 and 3 were coded as correct if students provided the correct number in the blanks in response to Item 2 or answered true in response to the equations in Item 3. Student strategies for this item were coded as structural, computational, or operational. The structural code was assigned when student rationales were based on underlying structure. For example, a student might say that a 6 should be placed in the blank in 7 + 3 = ___ + 4 because 4 is one more than 3, so the number in the blank must be one less than 7. Responses were assigned the computational code when there was evidence that students viewed the equal sign relationally but performed calculations. For example, given 57 + 22 = 58 + 21, students might find 57 + 22 = 79 and 58 + 21 = 79 to determine the equation is true. Responses were assigned to the operational category when students demonstrated an operational view of the equal sign. For example, some students stated that the blank in 5 + 3 = ___ + 3 must be 8 because 5 + 3 = 8. Some students even added all three given numbers and, in the case of this item, placed an 11 in the blank. If a student used two strategies, the most sophisticated strategy was recorded. For example, in response to Item 3a, students occasionally computed the sum on both sides of the equal sign but also provided an explanation indicating they noticed the structure in the equation. In such a case, the response was assigned the structure code.

## Figure 2. Proportion of students giving correct response to Items 2a and 2b.

Figure 3. Proportion of students giving structural explanation in response to Items 2a and 2b. Item 3: True/False number sentences Figure 4 presents the results of students performance on Items 3a and 3b as a function of grade. As was the case with Items 2a and 2b, success on these items (i.e., answering true) was very similar. It is often suggested that items such as 3a be used to encourage students to look for relationships across the equal sign (e.g., Carpenter et al., 2003). Figure 5, however, illustrates that very few students responded to this task by providing an explanation focused on the equations structure. The more obvious 39 + 121 = 121 + 39 (Item 3b) was much more apt to elicit such a response. One fourth-grade student stated, for example, that the equation was true because its turned around, so its the same.

## Figure 4. Proportion of students giving correct response to Items 3a and 3b.

Figure 5. Proportion of students giving structural explanation in response to Items 3a and 3b. Item 4: Equivalent equations Item 4 was designed to take students understandings of the equal sign a step further. To recognize that 15 + 8 = 23 implies 15 + 8 + 12 = 23 + 12 and that no computation is necessary requires more advanced thinking about relationships across the equal sign. A student with a structural understanding of equations would not need to perform any computations to recognize the transformation maintains the equivalence relation. However, as Figure 6 illustrates, very few studentseven by grade 5demonstrated such an understanding.

Figure 6. Proportion of students giving structural explanation in response to Item 4. Conclusion Our results are consistent with well-documented findings that students in the elementary grades tend to view the equal sign operationally and that very few develop a strong structural sense of algebraic equations. We focused in this paper, however, on the structural understandings that were demonstrated by some students and how these varied by task. Our findings suggest that task selection matters. Even among tasks of the same form designed to encourage structural sense, variation existed in students recognition of equation structure. Several students who defined the equal sign operationally were in fact able to shift their thinking when confronted with very obvious tasks such as 5 + 3 = ___ + 3 and 39 + 121 = 121 + 39, suggesting that such tasks might provide an entryway into discussions about algebraic structure and the meaning of the equal sign for students at the very beginning of their early algebra experiences.

Endnote The research reported here was supported in part by the National Science Foundation under DRK-12 Award #1207945. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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