By Karen Keene and Nicholas Fortune, North Carolina State University
One common instructional approach during the first two years of undergraduate mathematics in courses such as calculus or differential equations is to teach primarily analytic techniques (procedures) to solve problems and find solutions. In differential equations, for example, this is true whether the course is strictly analytical or focuses on both analytic techniques and qualitative methods for analysis of solutions.
While these analytic techniques play a major part of the early undergraduate mathematics curriculum, there is significant discussion and research about the importance of learning the concepts of mathematics. Many researchers in mathematics education encourage teaching mathematics where students learn the concepts before the procedures and are guided through the process of reinventing traditional procedures themselves (e.g., Heibert, 2013). Additionally, educators who have developed mathematical learning theories often set up a dichotomy between the two kinds of learning (e.g., Skemp, 1975; Haapasalo & Kadijevich, 2000). At the collegiate level, we as professors may agree that these educational ideas hold merit, but also firmly believe that students have a significant amount of content to learn and may not always be able to spend the time necessary to allow students to participate fully in the development of conceptual understanding and the reinvention of the mathematics (including procedures).
However, some researchers, including ourselves, provide evidence that “teaching the procedures to solve problems and find solutions” and “providing ways for teaching concepts first so students will truly understand” can be integrated, and that the notion of learning procedures does not need to be shallow and merely a memorized list (Star, 2005; Hassenbrank & Hodgson, 2007). Our framework to merge these two ways of teaching is titled the Framework for Relational Understanding of Procedures. It was developed as part of Rasmussen and colleagues’ work in differential equations teaching and learning (Rasmussen et. al., 2006). Skemp coined the original definition; she defines relational understanding as “knowing both what to do and why” and contrasts it to instrumental understanding as “rules without reason” (1976, p. 21).
Following, we describe the six components of the Framework for Relational Understanding of Procedures. The idea is that each category can be used to consider and enhance students’ learning as they study a procedure. For each one, we provide a brief explanation, questions about student thinking, and an example of an exam question related to each component taken from our work in differential equations. Likely, each instructor could add other algorithms in differential equations as well as other courses.