Undergraduate Students’ Conceptions of Multiple Analytic Representations of Systems (of Equations)

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The extent of students’ struggles in linear algebra courses is at times surprising to mathematicians and instructors. To gain insight into the challenges, the central question I investigated for this

The extent of students’ struggles in linear algebra courses is at times surprising to mathematicians and instructors. To gain insight into the challenges, the central question I investigated for this project was: What is the nature of undergraduate students’ conceptions of multiple analytic representations of systems (of equations)?

My methodological choices for this study included the use of one-on-one, task-based clinical interviews which were video and audio recorded. Participants were chosen on the basis of selection criteria applied to a pool of volunteers from junior-level applied linear algebra classes. I conducted both generative and convergent analyses in terms of Clement’s (2000) continuum of research purposes. The generative analysis involved an exploration of the data (in transcript form). The convergent analysis involved the analysis of two student interviews through the lenses of Duval’s (1997, 2006, 2017) Theory of Semiotic Representation Registers and a theory I propose, the Theory of Quantitative Systems.

All participants concluded that for the four representations in this study, the notation was varying while the solution was invariant. Their descriptions of what was represented by the various representations fell into distinct categories. Further, the students employed visual techniques, heuristics, metaphors, and mathematical computation to account for translations between the various representations.

Theoretically, I lay out some constructs that may help with awareness of the complexity in linear algebra. While there are many rich concepts in linear algebra, challenges may stem from less-than-robust communication. Further, mathematics at the level of linear algebra requires a much broader perspective than that of the ordinary algebra of real numbers. Empirically, my results and findings provide important insights into students’ conceptions. The study revealed that students consider and/or can have their interest piqued by such things as changes in register.

The lens I propose along with the empirical findings should stimulate conversations that result in linear algebra courses most beneficial to students. This is especially important since students who encounter undue difficulties may alter their intended plans of study, plans which would lead them into careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) fields.