Mathematics for Teaching Mathematics education Levels of Problem Solving Skills

Levels of Problem Solving Skills

Here is one way of describing students levels of problem solving skills in mathematics. I call them levels of problem solving skills rather than process of reflective abstraction as described in the original paper. As math teachers it is important that we are aware of our students learning trajectory in problem solving so we can properly help them move into the next level.problem solving

Level 1 – Recognition

Students at this level have the ability to recognize characteristics of a previously solved problem in a new situation and believe that one can do again what one did before. Solvers operating at this level would not be able to anticipate sources of difficulty and would be surprised by complications that might occur as they attempted their solution. A student operating at this level would not be able to mentally run-through a solution method in order to confirm or reject its usefulness.

Level 2 – Re-presentation

Students at this level are able to run through a problem mentally and are able to anticipate potential sources of difficulty and promise. Solvers who operate at this level are more flexible in their thinking and are not only able to recognize similarities between problems, they are also able to notice the differences that might cause them difficulty if they tried to repeat a previously used method of solution. Such solvers could imagine using the methods and could even imagine some of the problems they might encounter but could not take the results as a given. At this level, the subject would be unable to think about potential methods of solution and the anticipated results of such activity.

Level 3 – Structural abstraction

Students at this level evaluates solution prospects based on mental run-throughs of potential methods as well as methods that have been used before. They are able to discern the characteristics that are necessary to solve the problem and are able to evaluate the merits of a solution method based on these characteristics. This level evidences considerable flexibility of thought.

Level 4 – Structural awareness

A solver operating at this level is able to anticipate the results of potential activity without having to complete a mental run-through of the solution activity. The problem structure created by the solver has become an object of reflection. The student is able to consider such structures as objects and is able to make judgments about them without resorting to physically or mentally representing methods of solution.

The levels of problem solving skills described above indicate that as solvers attain the higher levels they become increasingly flexible in their thinking. This framework is from the dissertation of Cifarelli but I read it form the paper The roles of reification and reflective abstraction in the development of abstract thought: Transitions from arithmetic to algebra by Tracy Goodson-Espy. Educational Studies in Mathematics 36: 219–245, 1998. © 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

You may also be interested on Levels of understanding of function in equation form based on my own research on understanding function.

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1 thought on “Levels of Problem Solving Skills”

  1. Great! Interesting trial to rank ‘The levels of appreciating, handling, problematics, then methods.’.

    Too much weight on ‘methods’ at my sense (because – so often – the main difficulty is not there downstream, but upstream, at the analyse and comparative pace, in the capacity to analyse the datas, their linkage, the system as named in Physics.).

    Eventhough this slight remark, THANK YOU, congratulations, and encouragements to continue!


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