Why fractions are difficult? Modeling optimal and sub-optimal integration strategies of numerators and denominators by educated adults

Daniel Fitousi, Ran Noyman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Many children and educated adults experience difficulties in understanding and manipulating fractions. In this study, we argue that a major cause of this challenge is rooted in the need to integrate information from two separate informational sources (i.e., denominator and numerator) according to a normative arithmetic rule (i.e., division). We contend that in some tasks, the correct arithmetic rule is replaced by an inadequate (sub-optimal) operation (e.g., multiplication), which leads to inaccurate representation of fractions. We tested this conjecture by applying two rigorous models of information integration: (a) functional measurement (Experiments 1-3) and (b) conjoint measurement (Experiment 4-5) to data from number-to-line and comparative judgment tasks. These allowed us to compare participants’ integration strategies with that of an ideal-observer model. Functional measurement analyses on data from the number-to-line task, revealed that participants could represent the global magnitude of proper and improper fractions quite accurately and combine the fractions’ components according to an ideal-observer model. However, conjoint measurement analyses on data from the comparative judgment task, showed that most participants combined these fractions’ components according to a sub-optimal (saturated) observer model, that is inconsistent with an ideal-observer (additive) model. These results support the view that educated adults are capable of extracting multiple types of representations of fractions depending on the task at-hand. These representations can be either accurate and conform with normative arithmetic or approximated and inconsistent with normative arithmetic. The latter may lead to the observed difficulties people experience with fractions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105656
JournalCognition
Volume242
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2024

Keywords

  • Conjoint measurement
  • Fractions
  • Numerical cognition

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