They Must Be Mediocre: Representations, Cognitive Complexity, and Problem Solving in Secondary Calculus Textbooks



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A small group of profit seeking publishers dominates the American textbook market and guides the learning of the majority of our nation?s calculus students. The College Board?s AP Calculus curriculum is a de facto national standard for this gateway course that is critically important to 21st century STEM careers. A multi-representational understanding of calculus is a central pillar of the AP curriculum. This dissertation asks whether this multi-representational vision is manifest in popular calculus textbooks.

This dissertation began with a survey of all AP Calculus AB Examination free response items, 2002-2011, and found that students score worse on items characterized by numerical anchors or verbal targets. Based on previously elucidated models, a new cognitive model of five levels and six principles is developed for the purpose of calculus textbook task analysis. This model explicates complexity as a function of representational input and output. Eight popular secondary calculus textbooks were selected for study based on Amazon sales rank data. All verbally anchored mathematical tasks (n=555) from sections of those books concerning the mean value theorem and all AP Calculus AB prompts (n=226) were analyzed for cognitive complexity and representational diversity using the model.

The textbook study found that calculus textbooks underrepresented the numerical anchor and verbal target. It found that the textbooks were both explicitly and implicitly less cognitively complex than the AP test. The article suggested that textbook tasks should be less dense, avoid cognitive attenuation, move away from the stand-alone item, juxtapose anchor representations, scaffold student solutions, incorporate previously considered overarching concepts and include more profound follow-up questions.

To date there have been no studies of calculus textbook content based on established research on cognitive learning. Given the critical role that their calculus course plays in the lives of hundreds of thousands of students annually, it is incumbent upon the College Board to establish a textbook review process at the very least in the same vain as the teacher syllabus auditing process established in recent years.