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International Journal of Mathematical


Education in Science and Technology
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A multidimensional approach to
explore the understanding of the
notion of absolute value
a

Athanasios Gagatsis & Areti Panaoura


a

Department of Education, University of Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus

Department of Education, Frederick University Cyprus, Nicosia,


Cyprus
Published online: 30 Apr 2013.

To cite this article: Athanasios Gagatsis & Areti Panaoura (2013): A multidimensional approach to
explore the understanding of the notion of absolute value, International Journal of Mathematical
Education in Science and Technology, DOI:10.1080/0020739X.2013.790510
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International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 2013


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0020739X.2013.790510

A multidimensional approach to explore the understanding of the


notion of absolute value
Athanasios Gagatsisa and Areti Panaourab
a

Department of Education, University of Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus; b Department of Education,


Frederick University Cyprus, Nicosia, Cyprus

Downloaded by [University of Cyprus] at 21:23 01 May 2013

(Received 24 October 2012)


The study aimed to investigative students conceptions on the notion of absolute value
and their abilities in applying the specific notion in routine and non-routine situations.
A questionnaire was constructed and administered to 17-year-old students. Data were
analysed using the hierarchical clustering of variables and the implicative method, while
the qualitative approach was used to identify and analyse students errors. The results
revealed students strong tendency to use algorithmic processes even in situations in
which this kind of reasoning was not suited. This tendency and students errors in the
tasks were assumed to occur primarily due to obstacles of didactic origin concerning
the didactic contract and subsequently due to epistemological obstacles grounded in the
history of mathematics.
Keywords: absolute value; didactic contract; epistemological obstacle

1. Theoretical background
1.1. The historical evolution of the notion of absolute value epistemological
obstacles
As several studies have pointed out, the historical approach can play a valuable role in
mathematics teaching and learning.[14] One point of view is that the historical approach
in didactic practices helps students to understand that mistakes, doubts, intuitive arguments,
controversies and alternative approaches to problems are not only legitimate but also an
integral part of mathematics in the making.[5] Another point of view is that the use of history
into education links psychological learning processes with historical epistemological
issues.[6]
For many years, the rationale of employing the history of mathematics in teaching has
explicitly or implicitly been hinged on the notion of recapitulation, according to which
ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis. Many historical developments in mathematics occurred due to ontological turns that allowed on introduction of structural symbols into a
discourse, which until now focused on operations.[7] On condition that students existing knowledge is not the same as what the people in the past knew, they do not have to
recapitulate the history of mathematics in their learning process.[8] According to the epistemological obstacles perspective,[9] one of the most important goals of historical studies
is to find problems and systems of constraints that must be analysed in order to understand
existing knowledge.

Corresponding author. Email: pre.pm@frederick.ac.cy


C 2013 Taylor & Francis

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A. Gagatsis and A. Panaoura

There have been many discussions on whether and to what extent it is possible to
follow a genetic teaching model that takes seriously into account the historical roots
of mathematical knowledge.[4] The historical-epistemological study of a mathematical
topic has been primarily used by the researchers of the didactics of mathematics to find
out obstacles emerging in the process of learning mathematics. For example, Brousseau
studied the historical development of decimal numbers and limits respectively, as a resource
for identifying the epistemological obstacles students encounter.[10] He considers that
epistemological obstacles should not be avoided because they constitute an essential part of
the teaching knowledge, but he argues against reproducing in the classroom the historical
situation. We present few things about the history of the development of the concept of
absolute value in order to highlight some of the difficulties concerning the construction of
the concept.
At the same context was the work of [9]. Researchers (see [7]) explored pupils performance and processes in tasks involving equations of complex numbers requiring conversions from a geometric representation to an algebraic representation and in reverse
direction; however, first the history of the development of complex numbers is presented
in order to highlight the difficulties concerning the construction of the concept and the
respective difficulties regarding pupils understanding of the concept.
In studying the historical evolution of the notion of absolute value three key stages
were distinguished [10]: (i) the absolute value as an implicit concept; (ii) the notion of
absolute value in the algebra of inequalities; (iii) the transition to a new conceptual context
where absolute value was on the way to notation and formalization.
In the first stage, the initial references to the absolute value are associated with the
name of Fr. Viete, 1591, In artem analyticen isagoge (Introduction to the analytical art,
1591 (in [11])). He introduces a special notation for uncertain minus (minus incerto),
which is nowadays used for equality, to express a doubtable case of subtraction of two
magnitudes. This notation has sometimes been conveyed as absolute difference. However,
it does not express the contemporary concept of absolute value, since the latter presupposes
the acceptance of negative numbers.
During the second phase, in seventeenth century negative numbers are considered as
an extension of the real numbers to new imaginary objects. The absolute value appears
as the number without sign and as the distance from zero. One of the first attempts for a
geometrical interpretation of negative numbers can be found in J. Wallis Algebra (1673),
as a preamble of a similar interpretation of imaginary numbers.[12] From this interpretation
of negative and positive numbers, it is evident that, for Wallis, the number without sign
functions as the distance from an origin.
The conceptions about positive and negative numbers and the derived meanings of the
number without sign or the distance from zero dominated mathematics, as substitutes
of the notion of absolute value, until the beginning of nineteenth century. Some of the
predominant conceptions of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are the following:
But a b signifies the difference between a and b when a is the greater, b a when
b is the greater and this absolute value (moles) may, however, be called itself a b
(C.W. Leibniz, Monitum De Characteribus Algebraicis (in [11]).
Au reste, il faut remarquer, pour e viter toute e quivoque, que quand nous disons que a
doit e tre < A2 nous entendons que a et A soient pris positivement, quoiquils puissent
e tre dailleurs positifs ou negatifs; de sorte quon ne doit avoir e gard, dans cette
comparaison des nombres a et A, qu`a leur valeur absolue.[13, p.390].

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International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology

This conception of the absolute value as a number taken positively and its expression
by the abstraction being made from the sign were established in the algebra of inequalities,
which, in the second half of the eighteenth century became an important tool in the theory
of numbers and the approximation solution of equations.
The use of abstraction faite de signe for the expression of positiveness was a natural
consequence of the traditional conception that a letter without sign in algebra represents a
positive quantity. However, within the context of the new problems and in connection to
this notion of absolute value, a new order relation of negatives and positives is gradually
established. This implies the recognition of the unified number line. Lagrange himself,
in his extensive additions on number-theoretical issues that were written in 1774 for the
French edition of Eulers Algebra, clarifies this point: Further, when negative quantities are considered, I understand by less quantities those that, taken positively, would be
greater.[14, p.468]
The third stage, in the nineteenth century was characterized by a transition to a new
conceptual context.[10] This conceptual change involved a rupture between the concept of
number and quantity. In particular, mathematics focused on arithmetization within a network
of epistemological, philosophical and didactical issues. In this context, the absolute value
[13] was considered as a necessary theoretical concept for the understanding of positive
and negative numbers. Moreover, the concept of modulus of a complex number and its
relation with the absolute value was gradually recognized.
Some of the most influential mathematical texts of this period are those of Argand
(1806, 1814) (in [11]). Argand uses the absolute value as the distance from zero (the point
of equilibrium in his example of a balance) or as a number without sign (the assets and
liabilities considered abstractly in his example of a fortune), elements from the second
period. He also uses directed line segments, introducing a notion of absolute value in
geometry. Finally, Argand uses the term modulus (that Gauss
had already introduced

since 1801 in the theory of numbers) to name the number n2 + m2 that he considered
to be the
absolute magnitude of the directed line segment that expresses the number
n + m 1.[15, p.71].
The absolute value appears for the first time as an independent notion in A.L. Cauchys
famous work Cours danalyse (1821). In this work, apart from an initial definition, the
typical features characterizing the introduction of this notion in modern calculus textbooks
do not appear in the rigorous proofs of theorems about convergence and continuity. A
characteristic example is the definition of continuity, whose formulation in the Cours d
analyse is the following:
. . . la fonction f(x), sera, entre les deux limites assignees a la variable x, fonction continue de
cette variable, si pour chaque valeur de x intermediaire entre ces limites, la valeur numerique
de la difference
f (x + a) f (x) decrois indefiniment avec celle de a.
[16, p.43]

The difference between the notions of absolute value (or valeur numerique) and of
module of that era and the current notion of absolute value, either in the real or in
the complex domain, consists of the lack of a uniform notation that could lead to the
formalization of the properties of the notion. The symbol of absolute value was first
introduced by K. Weierstrass in his work on Cauchys inequality in complex analysis,[17]

A. Gagatsis and A. Panaoura

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(p.67, in [11]). The introduction by Weierstrass of the two perpendicular bars in the notation
of the absolute value in the early 1840s was not widely adopted or accepted.[10]
The historical analysis has shown that the first obstacle, linked to the existence of
absolute value itself, concerns the conception of number as a mean of measuring quantities.
This conception is an obstacle to the notion of negative number in general, but also to
the order of positive and negative numbers on a number line. Additionally, the historical
analysis has shown that the acceptance of the absolute value as an independent notion, the
establishment of a single notation and the formalization of its properties, required a long
time and significant conceptual changes. This evolution took place in the context of new
conceptions of negative numbers and in the introduction of rigorous definitions and proofs
in calculus as well as in a close interaction with the two aspects of absolute value in the
fields of real and complex numbers.
1.2. The multidimensional approach for the notion of absolute value
When we comprehend anything at the conceptual level, we give it a verbal definition,
we have its image in our mind and we spontaneously feel it.[18] The process of definition of mathematical objects represents more than anything else the conflict between the
structure of mathematics, as conceived by professional mathematicians, and the cognitive
processes of concept acquisition [19] and it is important for teachers to be familiar with
their students ways of thinking about mathematical concepts.[20] Thus, giving a definition of a notion can be considered as a basic component of its understanding. As Stupel
claims, by presenting to students different definitions of a concept, it is possible to enable
them better comprehend the concepts involved.[21] Particularly, asking them to solve problems by applying a different definition of the concept can reveal when a specific definition
is more appropriate for general cases.
The specific notion of absolute value is very important for the teaching of mathematics
at Cyprus and Greece. We use it in order to express the distance between two numbers at
the line of the Real Numbers and we define many metrics at Rn. Consequently, the absolute
value is used to define the concept of limit, of the continuity for the real functions and the
multivariate functions. At the same time, it is used for the definitions of the spaces such as the
Linear Space for the Mathematical Analysis and for the metrics of the vectors at the Analytic
Geometry. In general, due to the didactic transformation the teaching of the absolute value
has as a consequence the appearance of monographs with theorems, properties and exercises
for the notion. In Greece, the entrance exams at the Department of Mathematics at the
Polytechnic University are based on exercises which included the notion of absolute value.
Many difficulties with the notion of absolute values arise when passing from the arithmetic
to the algebraic domain, where several definitions of the same concept are offered.[21] For
example, the presentation of the absolute value within the algebraic domain is within the
context of solving exercises and it is rarely a consequence of solving real-life problem.
The study of Almog and Hany examined high school students methods of approaching
absolute value inequalities [20] their common mistakes, misconceptions and the possible
sources of these mistakes. Results indicated that some of the students did find an immediate
solution while others used algebraic manipulations without fully understanding the meaning
of absolute value. Students ability to solve inequalities includes their strategies of solving
inequalities, their understanding of absolute value and the synthesis of both of them.
The purposes of the present study are the following: first, to explore students conceptions about absolute value and especially what kinds of definitions they propose and to what
extent; second, to investigate students performance in solving absolute value equations and

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International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology

inequalities; third, to examine how students conceptions of the meaning of absolute value
are related to their performance in solving equations and inequalities involving the notion;
fourth, to gain insight into students performance and to understand the epistemological
obstacles they encounter on absolute value, using the history of the particular notion as
a resource for this investigation; and fifth, to explicate a number of students difficulties
in tasks on absolute value via their connection with the didactic obstacles related to the
understanding of the notion.
Our purpose indicates that in terms of this study the notion of absolute value is assessed
from different perspectives: the epistemological viewpoint, the didactic and cognitive dimension. The importance of the epistemological perspective has been elaborated above.
Evidently, given that we do not use authentic mathematical problems from the history and
that students existing knowledge is not the same as peoples knowledge in the past, we
do not intend to interpret mistakes or misconceptions in the context of strict parallelism.
The latter two aspects of assessing students knowledge on absolute value are also important because they concern students knowledge and restrictions implied by the educational
system.
We had decided to investigate students conceptions in order to identify their limitations
in understanding the notion. In many times, the expressed definition of a student is an indication of his/her conception about a notion. When formal proof is introduced in advanced
mathematical thinking, a new focus of attention and cognitive activity occurs.[22] Instead
of a focus on symbols and computation to give answers, the emphasis changes to selecting
certain properties as definitions and axioms and building up the other properties of the
defined concepts by logical deduction. Each individual theoretician develops a personal
world of concept images.
At the present study, the term conception is employed to identify the difference
between the meaning that students construct about a mathematical concept and the concept
itself. A similar use of the term conception can be traced in the approach of Sfard [23]
in which she identifies three categories of conceptions about the notion of function. At
the same time, Sierpinska [24] links the term conception of a definition to a limited way
of understanding not of a mathematical concept but of the epistemological and structural
elements of mathematics.
In light of the above, we test the following predictions: overall, we expected that the
students personal meanings of absolute value will have similarities with the historical
roots in the sense that they will correspond to the different types of the conceptions that
emerged in the historical evolution of the notion (prediction 1). Considering students difficulties, we anticipated that a number of students errors in tasks on absolute value would
be related to epistemological obstacles corresponding to key conceptions identified in
the historical analysis of the notion (prediction 2). Students have extensive learning experience with equations and inequalities of absolute value whose solution process is reduced to
the execution of algorithms aiming at the removal of the absolute value sign. This emphasis
may limit students effectiveness in tackling unusual problems which require the meaningful application of the definition and properties of absolute value and not just the mechanical
manipulation of symbols. We anticipated that whereas students would easily tackle ordinary
equations and inequalities of absolute value, they would encounter difficulties (didactic obstacles) in recognizing impossible equations or inequalities involving the particular notion
(prediction 3). The treatment of equations and inequalities in school mathematics, which
emphasizes the algorithmic process to remove the symbol of absolute value, constitutes
the argument underlying this hypothesis. The dominance of students tendency to employ
the algorithmic method may limit their attempt to apply their constructed definitions of

A. Gagatsis and A. Panaoura

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absolute value to tackle equations and inequalities of the notion. We expected to find a
weak or even no linkage among students personal meanings of absolute value and their
abilities to solve equations and inequalities incorporating the notion (prediction 4).
2. Method
2.1. Participants and research instrument
A total of 135 students of eleventh grade (17 years of age) in five different high schools in
Cyprus (almost 25 from each school) were examined. We assumed that the samples from the
different schools were from comparable cognitive level of students because all the schools
were urban and there are not any comparative national examinations at Cyprus which could
enable us to discriminate the schools level. There was not any randomized procedure to
select the sample, on the contrary mathematics teachers accepted voluntarily to spend the
necessary time for their students participation at the study. A limitation of the study was our
inability to control the teaching method. Nevertheless, in Cyprus, there is only one textbook
for students and teachers receiving the same instructions by the Ministry of Education for
the teaching methods they have to follow. Generally, the teaching
 of the notion takes place
a, if a 0,
at the age of 1617 years. The definition is presented as |a| =
a, if a < 0.
The students are taught a few properties (for addition and multiplication) and then they
have to solve equations and inequalities with absolute value.
A questionnaire was constructed for the studys needs. Students spent approximately
1 hour in order to complete the questionnaire and give answers to all the items. The
questionnaire and the corresponding symbolization of the variables used for the analysis
of the data are presented in the Appendix. For our expectations concerning students
responses, we can highlight in a few words the following. (i) For the solution of Equation
(B) the property which is presented at the textbook is |x| = a, a > 0 x = a. (ii) For
the inequalities C and G the properties are |x| > a x > a, x < a, |x| < a a <
x < a. (iii) For Equation (I) (without solution), we wanted to use the common sense that
the sum of positive numbers cannot be equal to 0.
3. Results
3.1. Students performance
Primarily, the success percentages were accounted for the tasks of the test by using descriptive analysis and crosstabs analyses were carried out to examine the differences in the
performance between groups of students, i.e. in the different definition categories.
The success percentages for the tasks of the test are shown in Table 1. It is noteworthy that the majority of the students (59.1%) defined the notion of absolute value as a
number without sign. Similar proportions of students defined absolute value as a distance
from zero (11.7%) or provided a formal definition of it (10.4%). A similarity with the
historical roots of the different types of these definitions is evident providing evidence to
Table 1.

Percentages of students correct responses to the tasks of the questionnaire.

Item
% of the correct answers

Ai

Aii

Aiii

10.4

11.7

59.1

78.8

38.7

6.6

31.4

55.5

17.5

1.5

25.9

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International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology

prediction 1, which suggests that there is a correspondence between the students personal
meanings of absolute value and the different types of the conceptions that emerged in the
historical evolution of the notion. The conceptions of number without sign or the distance
from zero dominated mathematics, as substitutes of the notion of absolute value, until the
beginning of the nineteenth century.
Students exhibited low performance on the tasks which required the solution of
impossible equations or inequalities. One of the most difficult tasks was the impossible
equation (D), | | x 5 | 12 | = 5, with only 6.6% success. Only 1.5% of the students
recognized that Equation (I), |x + 2| + |x + 6| = 0, was not possible to be solved. The
greatest success (78.8%) was detected in the second task, which involved an absolute value
equation, | x + 3 | = 2. It is a well-known procedure to students, which is presented many
times in their textbooks. The above findings verify prediction 2, suggesting the greater
difficulty of the impossible equations or inequalities relatively to the ordinary equations
and inequalities involving the absolute value, which students are more familiar with.
Crosstabs analysis showed that 76.5% of the students, who defined the absolute value
as a number without sign, solved correctly Equation (B). The corresponding percentages of
the students who defined formally the notion of absolute value and of those who defined it
as a distance from zero were 92.9% and 93.8%, respectively. An important discrepancy was
found in the performance of students who solved correctly the last task. While 21.4% of the
students who provided a formal definition and 25.9% of those who defined it as a number
without sign solved correctly the task, a percentage of 43.8% of the students who defined
it as a distance from zero were successful at the same task. A possible explanation for this
difference is that the inequality | x 3| > 0 may represent a positive distance for all the
values of x except for x = 3. Thus, students way of making sense of absolute value seems
congruent to the particular algebraic inequality and thus helped them to conceptualize the
expression and provide a correct solution of it.
In summary, the aforementioned descriptive results indicated that whereas students
could perform well in solving equations involving the absolute value, they encountered
difficulties in identifying impossible equations and inequalities incorporating the notion.
Moreover, many students did not seem to understand the notion of absolute value, in order to
be able to explain it. The trends of the teaching of absolute value in school mathematics may
provide an explanation for students behaviour. The notion of absolute value is introduced
using a formal definition, while dealing with impossible equations or inequalities receives
little or no attention.

3.2. Relations among students conceptions on absolute value and their abilities
in solving tasks involving the notion
To gain insight into the linkage pattern of students meanings of absolute value and their
abilities in solving equations and inequalities incorporating the notion, data were analysed by employing the hierarchical clustering of variables and the implicative analysis,
using a computer software called C.H.I.C. (Classification Hierarchique, Implicative et
Cohesitive).[25]
These methods of analysis determine the hierarchical similarity connections and the
implicative relations of the variables respectively.[26] The former type of connections
among the variables (see Appendix), which in this study correspond to students responses
to the tasks of the test, are given in a similarity diagram. This diagram suggests a hierarchical
classification of the variables with respect to the similarity and coherence between them.

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Figure 1.

A. Gagatsis and A. Panaoura

Similarity diagram of students responses to the tasks.

The implicative relations indicate whether success to a specific task implies success to
another task related to the former one.
The similarity relations among students responses to the tasks and their conceptions
of absolute value are presented graphically in Figure 1. Two similarity clusters are distinguished, namely Cluster 1 and Cluster 2. These clusters involve different meanings of
absolute value based on students behaviour. Cluster 1 is consisted of two groups. The
first group (Group 1a) consists of the students responses to the impossible equations and
inequalities (D, H and I) and to the task asking the sign of x (E), which is ultimately related
to the former tasks. It is noteworthy that this group, which indicates students consistency
in tackling these non-typical tasks, is complemented by the formal definition of absolute
value (Ai) by means of a relatively weak similarity connection. The second group (Group
1b) links the conception that the absolute value is the distance from 0 (Aii) with the solution
of the inequality | x 3| > 0 (J).
Cluster 2 involves students responses to the ordinary tasks included in school mathematics (B, C and G), indicating the similar and consistent processes they use when dealing
with such tasks. Students responses to these tasks are linked with the meaning of absolute value given by the students that it is the number without sign in a weak manner.
To sum up, the grouping established in the similarity diagram suggests the autonomous
and distinct processes that students activate when confronting ordinary school tasks and
non-conforming tasks involving impossible equations or inequalities of absolute value.
Even if the relations of students conceptions about the meaning of absolute value,
namely Ai and Aiii, with their performance in solving equations or inequalities involving
the notion are relatively weak, they reveal the tasks to which each conception of absolute
value is more congruent relatively to the other conceptions. For example, on one hand,
students performance in the typical tasks on absolute value is more congruent with the
conception Aiii, that the absolute value is a number without sign, rather than with the
other conceptions. On the other hand, students performance in non-typical tasks is more
congruent with the formal definition of absolute value (Ai). Moreover, the conception that
the absolute value is the distance from 0 (Aii) is directly linked and therefore more congruent
with the solution of the inequality | x 3| > 0 (J), rather than the other inequalities or
equations. A hypothetical explanation is that the particular inequality could represent a
positive distance for all the values of x except for x = 3.

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International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology

Figure 2.

Implicative diagram of students responses to the tasks.

The weak relations between the two clusters in the similarity diagram suggests the
autonomous and distinct processes that students activate when confronting ordinary school
tasks and non-conforming tasks involving impossible equations or inequalities of absolute
value.
The implicative relations among the responses of students to the tasks are presented
graphically in Figure 2. One of the most complex tasks involves the equation | | x 5 |
12 | = 5, which actually requires the recognition that it is impossible. Students who
succeeded at this task, performed well at the majority of the other tasks of the test.
The structure of the implicative relations combined with students success rates indicate that the tasks of similar conceptual components and requirements have a congruent
complexity level and thus can be categorized as follows: (a) impossible equations (D and
H), (b) inequalities with infinite solutions (J) and understanding of the notion of variable
(E), (c) inequalities with finite solutions (C and G) and (d) traditional equations and simple
algorithms (B). Moving from the first to the fourth task category, the relative difficulty of
the tasks is decreased. Moreover, in most cases success at the tasks of a more complex
category (D of category (a) entail success directly or indirectly at the tasks of the less
complex categories (E and J of category b, C and G of category c and B of category d).
Lack of implications of the variable Aiii with any variable in the implicative diagram
suggests that students who have the idea that the absolute value is a number without sign
do not necessarily succeed at the solution of equations or inequalities in which the absolute
value intervenes. This applies in a lower degree for the other conception categories about
the meaning of absolute value. Defining correctly the absolute value or conceptualizing
absolute value as a distance from zero entails success at the solution of some equations
or inequalities involving the particular notion (i.e. B and J). These findings as well as the

10

A. Gagatsis and A. Panaoura

weak similarity relations of students definitions with their performance in the solution
of equations and inequalities, explicated above, provide further evidence to prediction,
which suggests that students meanings of absolute value would not relate strongly to their
solutions of equations or inequalities involving the notion.

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3.3. Students difficulties in relation to epistemological and didactic obstacles:


the outcomes of the qualitative analysis
A number of obstacles in the understanding of absolute value are related to conceptions
about the notion of number and mainly about negative and positive numbers. Other obstacles
that occurred were of didactic origin. Based on the historical analysis presented above and
on students errors, we have identified the following four obstacles:
(1) The conception of number as a mean of measuring quantities is an obstacle for: (a)
the representation of the number line and the entailed order relation; (b) the general
concept of variable and (c) the notion of absolute value. Some of the students
errors associated with the first obstacle are the following: (a) in the task E, which
asks students to determine the sign of x, a common answer was minus or that
x was a negative number and (b) in the task C, which requires the solution of the
inequality | x | > 5, a number of students gave the answer x > 5.
(2) The notion of absolute value as a number without sign, which has been detected
both in main instances of the historical analysis and in students replies (i.e. the
conception Aiii given by 59%), act as an obstacle for: (a) the acquisition of the
formal definition of absolute value and (b) the symbolic representation of absolute
value. This obstacle may yield errors like the ones that appeared in the answers of
a number of students in the study: (a) in the task B, which entails the solution of
the equation | x + 3 | = 2, some students responded that x + 3 = 2 or x 3 =
2; (b) a general erroneous answer is |x| = x and (c) in the task G that required
the real values of x for which the inequality |x 2| < 3 was valid, a response given
by the students was x 2 < 3. The above outcomes of the qualitative analysis
verify prediction 4, which suggests that some students errors in tasks on absolute
value are related to epistemological obstacles corresponding to main conceptions
detected in the historical evolution of the notion.
(3) Students tendency to keep the form by which the absolute value was introduced
to them, i.e. |x| = x if x > 0, acted as an obstacle for solving equations like
| x + 3 | = 2 (task B). The influence of this phenomenon which is known as
the prototype phenomenon [19] occurred in students responses that involved the
following error: | x + 3 | = x + 3 if x > 0 and | x + 3 | = x + 3 if x < 0. These
errors in using the absolute value and its properties verify prediction 2, suggesting
the influence of obstacles of didactic origin in students performance.
(4) One of the most important obstacles for the use of absolute value and its properties
is the belief that the absolute value is just a symbol which must be taken away. This
belief could be the result of the didactic contract, which is related to the following
paradox: in the teaching of absolute value, the symbol of the notion is initially
introduced, but subsequently in the context of solving equations and inequalities or
of finding the value of algebraic expressions in which the absolute value intervenes,
this symbol is discarded. This contradiction in terms of the didactic contract may be
a cause of the great difficulties that the students encountered in tackling the tasks D
(| | x 5 | 12 | = 5), H (|x 4| < 2) and I (|x + 2| + |x + 6| = 0). The usual

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11

errors of the students in these tasks were the following: (a) the use of algorithms to
remove the sign of the absolute value, without verifying the solutions and (b) the
attempt to apply these algorithms even to obviously impossible equations like the
ones incorporated in the tasks D, H and I.

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One of the most common algorithms employed by the students involved the specification
of different cases of intervals for the variable x. For instance, in task I, some students
represented graphically the axis of the real numbers and examined three alternative cases:
x < 6, 6 < x < 2 and x > 2. It is noteworthy that this task (task I) was the most
difficult one in the test, as only two students responded that there is not a solution in the set
of real numbers. The most usual error among the responses of the students, which did not
appear in the other impossible equations or inequalities, was the following: If |x + 2| + |x
+ 6| = 0, then x = 2 or x = 6.
4. Discussion
In the last two decades among those researchers who have used the notion of an obstacle in
their study of the teachinglearning process, there have been several discussions concerning
the existence of a correspondence between knowledge that acts as an obstacle, which is
displayed by the students and similar conceptions adopted by mathematicians in the past.[4]
Sfard [27] claimed that . . .the historical perspective proved invaluable source of insights
into the subtleties of the learning process and into the nature of students difficulties.
(p.131)
The findings of the present study, confirming our first prediction, showed that students
conceptions of the meaning of absolute value, namely a number without sign (Aiii),
distance from zero (Aii) and the formal definition (Ai), correspond to the most important
conceptions that appeared in the historical analysis of the notion. The former conception was
the most common one among the students constructed definitions of absolute value. This
is a first indication that the majority of the students did not acquire a sufficient conceptual
understanding of the notion.[18]
Some of the students errors in the tasks on absolute value were found to stem from
the former conception, which constitutes an important obstacle that occurred also in the
historical evolution of the notion, confirming the forth prediction.
The conception of number as a means of measuring quantities, although not explicitly
expressed by the students, was indicated by their insufficient conceptualization of the
variable and specifically the rejection of the idea that x may be positive, despite the fact
that the problems faced by mathematicians in previous years were not the same as the
tasks proposed to the students in the present research. This conception can be considered
as another epistemological obstacle in students understanding of absolute value, since it
hinders the acquisition of positive and negative numbers as elements of a unified set on
which the absolute value function may be constructed.[29]
In addition to the epistemological obstacles that have been identified in the historical
context, our findings confirmed the third prediction, and suggested that there must be
didactic obstacles obstacles due exclusively to the characteristics of the teaching system
which have a rather stronger effect on students performance than the epistemological
ones. A basic paradoxical feature of teaching the notion of absolute value is that although
it initially introduces the symbol of the notion, subsequently, it constrains the solution
of equations and inequalities of absolute value to the execution of algorithms aiming at
the removal of the absolute value symbol.[11] This teaching limitation may result as a

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A. Gagatsis and A. Panaoura

didactic obstacle which gives rise to students tendency to apply the algorithmic process
to all of the tasks, where the absolute value intervenes, in an attempt to get rid of its
symbol. Results at the study of Stupel [21] indicated that students intuitive perception
is that inequalities are similar to equations and equations are prototypes in algorithmic
models of solving inequalities. The students in the present study, who attempted to answer
through a mechanical and unquestionable application of a rule employed in teaching,
failed, especially in the non-typical tasks. Students have been learning probably for a long
time how to get rid of the symbol of the absolute value from an equation in order to solve
it. Their attempt to apply the taught algorithms even to obviously impossible equations like
the ones incorporated in the tasks D, H and I indicate that the belief that the absolute value
is just a symbol which must be taken away and the tendency to follow the algorithmic
process to that end have been deep-rooted, persistent and resistant to change.
This behaviour can be explained by means of the notion of didactic contract which has
been introduced by Brousseau [9] in an attempt to give a theoretical interpretation for several
dysfunctions in students learning in mathematics. It refers to a set of implicit rules that is
negotiated in the mathematics classroom and that determines the interaction between the
teacher and the students in connection with a particular knowledge and specifies particular
features of the tasks given to the students as well as of the ways these can be solved.
Teachers great attention to the algorithmic process for removing the symbol of absolute
value engages students in a mechanical use of the algorithms, which becomes a rule of the
didactic contract, despite being eligible only for a limited number of situations involving
the concept. Sierpinska argues that students at the first grades of secondary education do
not construct the conception for absolute value as a symbol that must be taken away
spontaneously, but as a result of phrases used by their teachers.[24]
Students behaviour may have been influenced by another aspect of the didactic contract
which appears in mathematics teaching in general. The teaching norms in mathematics
classroom suggesting that ordinary school problems usually have a solution [29] yields
students implicit but strong tendency to provide an answer to every problem given to them.
The influence of the didactical contract may give an explanation for this behaviour,
in this case too, as indicated by the studys findings. The aforementioned contradictory
teaching approach limited to the use of algorithmic processes may be considered as an
aspect of the didactic contract, which gave rise to students tendency to apply senselessly
the rule of removing the absolute values symbol for every task they have confronted. As
Gray et al. [22] claimed one method to cope with the complexity of a sequence of activities is
repletion and practice until it becomes routine and it can be performed with little conscious
thought.
Students may have developed the idea-obstacle that the absolute value is a symbol that
must be taken away, a conception with strong implications for misunderstanding the proper
mathematical use of the absolute value in analysis. There are students who understand the
symbolism flexible as process and concept and find it almost trivial to manipulate the
symbols in a meaningful way.[30] The rule of removing the absolute values symbol has
been stronger and more persistent than the conceptual understanding of the nature, the
meaning and the inherent mathematical properties of the notion itself. Thus, it did not allow
the students to recognize an obviously impossible equation or inequality with absolute
value, even if they have acquired an appropriate definition of the notion. They have just
employed the standard algorithmic process at the first sight of an equation, function or
inequality, without considering whether the meaning of absolute value applied or not.
The outcomes of the similarity and the implicative method suggest that there has been
no or a very weak linkage between students conceptions of absolute value and their abilities

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in solving equations and inequalities involving the notion (forth prediction). On one hand,
students who gave the formal definition or conceived the absolute value as a distance from
zero were more likely to succeed at the more complex and unusual tasks of the test, such
as those involving the solution of indeterminate inequalities or impossible equations and
inequalities, than students who did not construct a sufficient definition of the notion, i.e.
conceiving absolute value as a number without sign. On the other hand, findings showed
that the definitions given by the students, Ai and Aii were not sufficient for the resolution of
impossible equations and impossible and indeterminate inequalities. The conception that the
absolute value is a number without sign (Aiii), might even act as an obstacle on students
solution processes, as indicated above. In the light of the above, the following question
arises: if the majority of the students did not apply a sufficient definition of absolute value
that is Ai or Aii, how did they arrive at the solution of equations or inequalities involving
the concept?
Students activated mainly their procedural knowledge to solve the problems of absolute
value. However, procedural knowledge allows for the efficient and good oriented solution
of routine problems.[31] Using the particular knowledge of absolute value superficially or
without activating any conceptual thinking, e.g. applying meaningfully the definition of the
notion, did not allow students to solve the non-conventional situations involving the notion.
Star argues that each type of knowledge procedural or conceptual can have either a
superficial or a deep quality.[32] Deep procedural knowledge cannot exist without deep
conceptual knowledge or vice versa.[33] The results of our study suggest that students, even
those who provided a sufficient definition of the notion, have used both types of knowledge
for absolute value in a superficial and isolated way.
The findings of the implicative analysis provide an indication of the existence of different
levels in students abilities to deal with various tasks incorporating the absolute value. At
the first level, students were competent in dealing with ordinary equations by employing
simple algorithms, while at the second level, they were in a position to solve inequalities with
finite solutions. Students, who were at the third level, understood and handled sufficiently
the notion of variable and were able to solve inequalities with infinite solutions. At the
highest level proposed by this studys results, students were capable in recognizing whether
equations or inequalities involving the absolute value were impossible or not.
The findings of this study provided a global picture of students understanding of
absolute value, which was analysed and interpreted from different perspectives. Our findings
have implications for future research as regards the teaching practice on absolute value.
We believe that it is not adequate to describe what students know about a particular notion,
how they use it or what misunderstandings they encounter in various situations involving
the notion. It would be theoretically interesting and practically useful to examine in a future
study the development of interventions, with or without dynamic geometry software such
as Geogebra,[21] in order to help students to be transferred, by constructing the conceptual
and procedural knowledge, from the lower levels to the higher levels of abilities concerning
the understanding of the notion of absolute value.
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Appendix

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The questionnaire and the symbolization of the variables:


A. What do we mean by absolute value of a real number?
A formal definition was coded as Ai, the distance from zero as Aii and the number without sign
as Aiii.
B. Solve the equation | x + 3 | = 2.
C. |x| > 5.
D. Solve the equation | |x 5 |12| = 5
E. Determine the sign of x.
G. Give the real values of x for which the inequality is valid |x 2|<3.
H. Solve the inequality |x 4| < 2.
I. Solve the equation |x + 2| + |x + 6| = 0.
J. Solve the inequality | x 3| > 0.
The other variables of the study stand for students responses to the tasks B, C, D, E, G, H, I and J
which are symbolized by the corresponding letters. For the tasks B, C, G and J a score of 1 was given
to each correct procedure and correct answer, a score of 0.5 was assigned to each correct procedure
and wrong answer (probably as a result of a numerical error in the solution process), and a score of
0 was provided to each wrong procedure and wrong or no answer. For the tasks D, I and H which
involved impossible equations or inequalities and for the task E a score of 1 was given to each correct
answer and a score of 0 was assigned to each incorrect or no answer. These were the values of the
variables used in the analysis of the data.