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Cogn Sci. 2008 Mar;32(2):366-97. doi: 10.1080/03640210701863933.

Trade-offs between grounded and abstract representations: evidence from algebra problem solving.

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Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon UniversityDepartment of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-MadisonDepartment of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


This article explores the complementary strengths and weaknesses of grounded and abstract representations in the domain of early algebra. Abstract representations, such as algebraic symbols, are concise and easy to manipulate but are distanced from any physical referents. Grounded representations, such as verbal descriptions of situations, are more concrete and familiar, and they are more similar to physical objects and everyday experience. The complementary computational characteristics of grounded and abstract representations lead to trade-offs in problem-solving performance. In prior research with high school students solving relatively simple problems, Koedinger and Nathan (2004) demonstrated performance benefits of grounded representations over abstract representations-students were better at solving simple story problems than the analogous equations. This article extends this prior work to examine both simple and more complex problems in two samples of college students. On complex problems with two references to the unknown, a "symbolic advantage" emerged, such that students were better at solving equations than analogous story problems. Furthermore, the previously observed "verbal advantage" on simple problems was replicated. We thus provide empirical support for a trade-off between grounded, verbal representations, which show advantages on simpler problems, and abstract, symbolic representations, which show advantages on more complex problems.

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