Loughborough University
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Advanced mathematics and deductive reasoning skills: testing the Theory of Formal Discipline

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posted on 2013-04-22, 12:52 authored by Nina Attridge
This thesis investigates the Theory of Formal Discipline (TFD): the idea that studying mathematics develops general reasoning skills. This belief has been held since the time of Plato (2003/375B.C), and has been cited in recent policy reports (Smith, 2004; Walport, 2010) as an argument for why mathematics should hold a privileged place in the UK's National Curriculum. However, there is no rigorous research evidence that justifies the claim. The research presented in this thesis aims to address this shortcoming. Two questions are addressed in the investigation of the TFD: is studying advanced mathematics associated with development in reasoning skills, and if so, what might be the mechanism of this development? The primary type of reasoning measured is conditional inference validation (i.e. `if p then q; not p; therefore not q'). In two longitudinal studies it is shown that the conditional reasoning behaviour of mathematics students at AS level and undergraduate level does change over time, but that it does not become straightforwardly more normative. Instead, mathematics students reason more in line with the `defective' interpretation of the conditional, under which they assume p and reason about q. This leads to the assumption that not-p cases are irrelevant, which results in the rejection of two commonly-endorsed invalid inferences, but also in the rejection of the valid modus tollens inference. Mathematics students did not change in their reasoning behaviour on a thematic syllogisms task or a thematic version of the conditional inference task. Next, it is shown that mathematics students reason significantly less in line with a defective interpretation of the conditional when it is phrased `p only if q' compared to when it is phrased `if p then q', despite the two forms being logically equivalent. This suggests that their performance is determined by linguistic features rather than the underlying logic. The final two studies investigated the heuristic and algorithmic levels of Stanovich's (2009a) tri-process model of cognition as potential mechanisms of the change in conditional reasoning skills. It is shown that mathematicians' defective interpretation of the conditional stems in part from heuristic level processing and in part from effortful processing, and that the executive function skills of inhibition and shifting at the algorithmic level are correlated with its adoption. It is suggested that studying mathematics regularly exposes students to implicit `if then' statements where they are expected to assume p and reason about q, and that this encourages them to adopt a defective interpretation of conditionals. It is concluded that the TFD is not supported by the evidence; while mathematics does seem to develop abstract conditional reasoning skills, the result is not more normative reasoning.



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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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