School of Education News

Nathan explains perks of using word problems to engage mathematical intuitions

November 24, 2014

UW-Madison’s Mitchell Nathan is quoted in a recent Education Week report that looks at research results examining the use of word problems in mathematics classes.

The Ed Week story notes: “Word problems are often considered one of the most challenging tasks in a beginning algebra class, with students likely to stumble over the move from the clean, basic formula to applying it in a real context. Now, however, evidence from an ongoing series of experiments with students from middle school through college suggests that word problems might be easier and more beneficial for students when presented at the beginning, not the end, of a mathematics lesson.”

Mitchell Nathan
“Early on, symbols are barriers to learning,” Nathan tells Ed Week. “Even with no context, word problems provide powerful informal problem-solving strategies, and language itself provides an entry point to mathematical reasoning that is highly superior to the algebraic equation.”

Nathan is director of the Center on Education and Work, and a faculty member with the departments of Educational PsychologyCurriculum and Instruction, and Psychology.

The report explains how Nathan and UW-Madison Psychology Professor Martha Alibali, who is an affiliate with the Department of Educational Psychology, are part of a group of researchers “who want to rescue word problems from the back of the textbooks.” These academics are “developing an intervention called ‘Bridging Instruction’ to help students and teachers use word problems more flexibly.”

Make sure and check out the entire Education Week article for an in-depth look into this topic by visiting

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