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Lee, Kerry
Poon, Kenneth K.
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In this thesis, I examined the association between inhibition and math problem solving in primary school students. Some researchers have argued that the ability to control irrelevant information is important for math problem solving. There is also reason to believe that the ability to suppress ineffective but prepotent strategies could be important. However, not all studies have found a significant relationship between inhibition and math problem solving.

Findings might have differed because some studies used irrelevant information in the word problems given to the students. This might have increased the need for inhibitory skills. Findings might also have differed because different types of inhibition were assessed. In the literature, inhibition has been conceptualized in different ways but there is support for a distinction between suppressing prepotent or automatic responses and suppressing proactive interference or interference from irrelevant information. Age of the participants also differed among studies; finally, methodological approach (examination of individual versus group differences) among the studies was also different. I ran three studies examining these four potential explanations for the mixed findings.

Study 1 involved 11 year-old students (N = 134) and examined the use of irrelevant information and the differences in the type of inhibition assessed. Type (numerical versus literal) and amount (none versus one piece versus three pieces) of irrelevant information were manipulated in the word problems administered. Both prepotent response inhibition and resistance to proactive interference were assessed. Measures of computational, relevancy identification (the ability to identify irrelevant information in word problems) and working memory skills served as control variables.

Findings were consistent across all three studies. Numerical but not literal irrelevant information was challenging to students. Study 1 showed that having one or three pieces of numerical irrelevant information was equally detrimental to performance. Study 3 showed that both poor and average math ability students were similarly affected by numerical irrelevant information. Consistent across all three studies, no relationship between inhibition and problem solving was found. Instead, relevancy identification was associated with problem solving. Working memory and computational skills also showed some associations with problem solving but they were moderated by age.

Findings challenged the four explanations for the mixed findings in the literature and highlight the need to consider alternative explanations. More research is needed to clarify the role of inhibition in problem solving but findings highlighted the importance of working memory, relevancy identification and computational skills for problem solving.
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QA63 Ng
Appears in Collections:Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

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