Different complex word problems require different combinations of cognitive skills

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Mathematical word problem solving is influenced by various characteristics of the task and the person solving it. Yet, previous research has rarely related these characteristics to holistically answer which word problem requires which set of individual cognitive skills. In the present study, we conducted a secondary data analysis on a dataset of N = 1282 undergraduate students solving six mathematical word problems from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Previous results had indicated substantial variability in the contribution of individual cognitive skills to the correct solution of the different tasks. Here, we exploratively reanalyzed the data to investigate which task characteristics may account for this variability, considering verbal, arithmetic, spatial, and general reasoning skills simultaneously. Results indicate that verbal skills were the most consistent predictor of successful word problem solving in these tasks, arithmetic skills only predicted the correct solution of word problems containing calculations, spatial skills predicted solution rates in the presence of a visual representation, and general reasoning skills were more relevant in simpler problems that could be easily solved using heuristics. We discuss possible implications, emphasizing how word problems may differ with regard to the cognitive skills required to solve them correctly.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEducational Studies in Mathematics
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)89-114
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 01.01.2022

Bibliographical note

Funding: Leuphana Universität Lüneburg

    Research areas

  • Arithmetic skills, General reasoning skills, Spatial skills, Verbal skills, Word problems
  • Educational science