A systematic investigation of the link between rational number processing and algebra ability


Recent research suggests that fraction understanding is predictive of algebra ability; however, the relative contributions of various aspects of rational number knowledge are unclear. Furthermore, whether this relationship is notation-dependent or rather relies upon a general understanding of rational numbers (independent of notation) is an open question. In this study, college students completed a rational number magnitude task, procedural arithmetic tasks in fraction and decimal notation, and an algebra assessment. Using these tasks, we measured three different aspects of rational number ability in both fraction and decimal notation: (1) acuity of underlying magnitude representations, (2) fluency with which symbols are mapped to the underlying magnitudes, and (3) fluency with arithmetic procedures. Analyses reveal that when looking at the measures of magnitude understanding, the relationship between adults’ rational number magnitude performance and algebra ability is dependent upon notation. However, once performance on arithmetic measures is included in the relationship, individual measures of magnitude understanding are no longer unique predictors of algebra performance. Furthermore, when including all measures simultaneously, results revealed that arithmetic fluency in both fraction and decimal notation each uniquely predicted algebra ability. Findings are the first to demonstrate a relationship between rational number understanding and algebra ability in adults while providing a clearer picture of the nature of this relationship.

British Journal of Psychology
Michelle Hurst
Michelle Hurst
Assistant Professor

My research interests include mathematical development and variations in performance across contexts.