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

results from a written assessment given to 290 third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students. We share and discuss students responses to items addressing their understanding of equation structure and the meaning of the equal sign. We found that while an operational view of the equal sign was predominant, some students were able to recognize underlying structure in arithmetic equations. The degree to which students were successful varied from task to task, with extremely obvious tasks such as 5 + 3 = ___ + 3 being more apt to elicit structure-based strategies. Our findings can inform early algebra efforts by identifying tasks that have the potential to help students begin to think about equations in a structural way. Objectives and rationale Algebra has historically served as a gateway to higher mathematics thatdue to high failure rateshas been closed for many students. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000) and others (e.g., Kaput, 1998, 1999) argue for the treatment of algebra as a K-12 strand as a way to address this issue. Several mathematics education researchers (Blanton, 2008; Brizuela & Earnest, 2008; Carpenter, Franke, & Levi, 2003) have investigated what this might mean for the elementary grades. While the foci of such efforts vary, consensus exists that algebra in the elementary grades (i.e., early algebra) should not involve an exclusively symbolic focus typical of a traditional eighth- or ninth-grade course but rather should introduce students to algebraic forms of reasoning that are accessible to them now and that we believe will benefit them when they begin a more formal study of algebra. It is now largely accepted that instruction for elementary students should build from what they already know (Carpenter, Fennema, & Franke, 1996). The success of Cognitively Guided Instruction (Carpenter, Fennema, Franke, Levi, & Empson, 1999), for example, is based on a fundamental understanding of student thinking in the area of whole number operations. The goal of this paper is to share findings from a written assessment about students understandings of the equal sign and equation structure, ideas foundational to a study of algebra. We focus especially on the role particular tasks played in eliciting these understandings. Theoretical framework When students are learning algebra, understanding the meaning of the equal sign and holding a structural conception of equations are critical (Carpenter et al., 2003; (Knuth, Stephens, McNeil, & Alibali, 2006; Molina & Ambrose, 2008) and related ( Knuth, Alibali, McNeil, Weinberg, & Stephens, 2005) issues. Kieran (2007) asserts that a structural understanding of algebra comes from an ability to see abstract ideas hidden behind symbols. For students with a structural conception of equations, the symbols become transparent and identifying allowable transformations is straightforward. Research suggests, however, that students lack both a solid understanding of the equal sign and a strong structural sense of equations. First, students tendency to view the equal sign as a stimulus to do something rather than as a symbol expressing a relationship of equivalence ( Blanton, Levi, Crites, & Dougherty, 2011; Carpenter et al., 2003) is a misconception that often persists into high school (Kieran, 1981) and even adulthood (McNeil & Alibali, 2005). Second, students often have difficulty interpreting and transforming equations, especially when several numerical terms are involved (Kieran, 2007). Evidence exists, however, that early interventions focused on helping students

develop a relational view of the equal sign and engage in structural thinking about equations can be successful (Carpenter et al., 2003). A key component of any such intervention is the nature of the tasks employed (Hiebert et al., 1997). True/false and open number sentences are particularly useful contexts for encouraging students to discuss the meaning of the equal sign and confront their misconceptions (Molina & Ambrose, 2006). Tasks that furthermore illustrate arithmetic properties (e.g., 12 + 11 = 11 + 12) are useful in helping students identify generalizations (Molina & Ambrose, 2008), and tasks that include larger numbers such as 88 + 49 = __ + 48 are useful in stimulating students to look at an equation structurally rather than rushing to compute (Carpenter et al., 2003). ). Tasks of these types, as well as others, were employed in this study to examine students understandings. This paper will focus specifically on the studys examination of the following questions: 1. What understandings and misconceptions do grades 3-5 students hold about the meaning of the equal sign and equation structure prior to early algebra instruction? 2. Do particular tasks encourage a relational understanding of the equal sign and a focus on equation structure more than others? Method Participants Participants were 290 elementary (104 third grade, 108 fourth grade, 78 fifth grade) students from two schools in southeastern Massachusetts. The school district in which these schools reside is largely white (91%) and middle class, with 17% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. The schools regular mathematics curriculumGrowing with Mathematics (Iron, 2003)does not include a specific focus on algebra. While participants were part of a larger project that aimed to investigate the efficacy of early algebra in grades 3-5, the assessments discussed in this paper were administered prior to our instructional intervention. Thus, we believe we can interpret our findings as representative of fairly typical elementary students algebraic thinking (i.e., students with arithmetic-based mathematics experiences). Data Collection Students completed an assessment at the beginning of the school year designed to measure their understanding of a variety of algebraic topics. We focus in this paper on student performance on four tasks (see Figure 1) that investigated students understanding of equation structure and the meaning of the equal sign. Item 1 was designed to elicit students definitions of the equal sign. Items 2 and 3 were designed to investigate students understandings of the equal sign in use as well as any recognition of underlying equation structure. Item 4 was designed to investigate students understanding of the preservation of an equivalence relation.

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.

Student responses to Item 4 were coded as correct if students responded that the second equation is true. As was the case with Items 2 and 3, student strategies for Item 4 were coded as structural, computational, or operational. The structural code was assigned when students showed understanding that adding 12 to both sides of the original equation preserves the equivalence relation. Students were assigned the computational category if they determined the second equation was true by computing the sum on each side. Finally, students were assigned the operational code if they disregarded the first equation and stated the second could not be true because 15 + 8 + 12 is not equal to 23. Reliability was established by having a second coder separately assign codes to each response. Agreement between coders was at least 99% for correctness and at least 88% on Items 1-3 and 77% on Item 4 for strategy use. Any discrepancies were discussed until full agreement was reached. Results and Discussion Research has repeatedly shown that many elementary students hold an operational view of the equal sign (e.g., Alibali, 1999; Falkner, Levi, & Carpenter, 1999) and lack an understanding of equation structure (e.g., Linchevski & Livneh, 1999). We likewise found that to be the case, beginning with the results from Item 1. Of all of the tasks discussed in the literature designed to examine students understandings of the equal sign, asking students to produce an appropriate definition is considered among the most difficult (Rittle-Johnson, Matthews, Taylor, & McEldoon, 2011). This proved to be the case in our study as well, with only six students (one third grader, one fourth grader, and four fifth graders) providing a relational definition of the equal sign. This tendency to treat the equal sign as an operational symbol extended to our other tasks as well. We found that many students responded to 5 + 3 = ___ + 3 by placing an 8 or an 11 in the box and said that 57 + 22 = 58 + 21 was false because 57 + 22 is not equal to 58. Rather than focus on such well-established results, we focus in this paper on the student responses that did illustrate some attention to underlying equation structure. We report how differences in tasks related to differences in student responses. We pay particular attention to tasks that encouraged recognitioneven with just a small number of studentsof underlying equation structure. Item 2: Open number sentences Figure 2 presents the results of students performance on items 2a and 2b as a function of grade. As illustrated in the graph, success (i.e., placing the correct number6 or 5in the blank) was nearly identical across these items. This was a little surprising to us given the obvious nature of Item 2b. Only when we examined students strategies did we see differences in the ways in which students were thinking about the items. In particular, note the differences in students use of the structural strategy (see Figure 3). Item 2b elicited in some fourth- and fifthgrade students an explanation that suggested recognition of the underlying structure rather than a need to compute. One fifth-grade student stated, for example, that 5 + 3 is equal to 5 + 3 because it is the same exact problem.

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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