Teaching using contextualised and decontextualised representations: examining the case of differential calculus through a comparative judgement technique

An ongoing debate concerns whether novel mathematical concepts are better learned using contextualised or decontextualised representations. A barrier to resolving this debate, and therefore to progress in the discipline, has been the paucity of validated methods of measuring students’ understanding of mathematical concepts. We developed an innovative and efficient method for measuring, in experimental settings, students’ understanding of any mathematical concept using comparative judgement. We demonstrate the method by applying it to the comparison of learning outcomes from two teaching conditions. Participants (260 15-16 year olds across six schools) were introduced to differential calculus using contextualised or decontextualised representations. We then assessed participants’ comparative conceptual understanding of derivatives. We found evidence that contextualised and decontextualised representations were equally effective at promoting student learning in this context. The assessment method yielded valid and reliable results, suggesting that it offers a robust and efficient approach for the problem of assessing conceptual understanding in experimental or other comparative settings