Mathematical Word Problems in Adult Education: What the Research Says 
Posted by Laura McLoughlin on January 12, 2023 in categoryFacts & Research

Lynda Ginsburg who is retired from Rutgers University wraps up volume 4, issue 3 of Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy with a Research Digest titled “Mathematical Word Problems in Adult Education: What the Research Says.”  

Ginsburg notes that there are high stakes when it comes to being able to solve word problems in mathematics, as many important tests and assessments use them to determine students’ ability to apply concepts to real life. Adults are actively managing their everyday lives. They know they must use math daily. But if word problems reflect unfamiliar situations or are presented in a way that could impact their ability to decipher what they are supposed to do, they are less likely to be successful.  

Read an excerpt from Ginsburg’s Research Digest exploring these issues: 

However, some have questioned whether the word problems appearing on assessments and in 
instructional materials actually do represent the lived experiences of most adult learners. Bright (2017) asked 58 graduate students to examine word problems in curricular materials and they found that many problems represented middle-class ideals and experiences. For example, problems focused on calculating area and/or perimeter by describing redecorating projects that would be most likely undertaken by home owners with disposable income rather than renters with more limited funds available. Bright notes that some might argue that middle-class contexts can be seen not as problematic for learners but rather as “aspirational,” that is, included to provide less privileged students with suggestions for things or goals they may aspire towards (p. 18). 

Indeed, whether these real world examples are unfamiliar or aspirational, they do not provide meaningful contexts that represent the lived experiences of most economically struggling adult learners. Thus, the learners are unlikely to be able to draw upon their own experiences to find meaning in the stories or to be able to employ their own informal mathematical strategies to help solve the problems. 

While Bright (2017) discusses issues of privilege and inequity, it might also be argued that the issue of the contexts of word problems differs somewhat for immigrants who are learning about the culture of a new country so as to be able to function well within it. Maphosa and Oughton (2021) interviewed adult learners in England who had immigrated from Zimbabwe and found they struggled with and became anxious about problems with “real-life contexts” because the contexts were unfamiliar to them. For example, some learners were unfamiliar with cooking turkey for Christmas holiday so problems about time measurements for cooking turkeys of different weights were meaningless to them. One of their instructors explained that while she could and does use example recipes from other cultures during instruction, such examples will not show up on the assessments because the assessments are culturally British based. 

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