The Nature and Origin of Rational Errors in Arithmetic Thinking: Induction from Examples and Prior Knowledge

Cognitive Science 19 (3):341-376 (1995)
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Abstract

Students systematically and deliberately apply rule‐based but erroneous algorithms to solving unfamiliar arithmetic problems. These algorithms result in erroneous solutions termed rational errors. Computationally, students' erroneous algorithms can be represented by perturbations or bugs in otherwise correct arithmetic algorithms (Brown & VanLehn, 1980; Langley & Ohilson, 1984; VanLehn, 1983, 1986, 1990; Young S O'Sheo, 1981). Bugs are useful for describing how rational errors occur but bugs are not sufficient for explaining their origin. A possible explanation for this is that rational errors are the result of incorrect induction from examples. This prediction is termed the “induction hypothesis” (VanLehn, 1986). The purpose of the present study was to: (a) expand on post formulations of the induction hypothesis, and (b) use a new methodology to test the induction hypothesis more carefully than has been done previously. The first step involved teaching participants a new number system called NewAbacus, a written modification of the abacus system. The second step consisted of dividing them into different groups, where each individual received an example of only one port of the NewAbacus addition algorithm. During the third and final step, participants were instructed to solve both familiar and unfamiliar types of addition problems in NewAbacus. The induction hypothesis was supported by using both empirical and computational investigations.

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