Original Research

Investigating learners’ meta-representational competencies when constructing bar graphs

Michael Mhlolo
Pythagoras | Vol 36, No 1 | a259 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/pythagoras.v36i1.259 | © 2015 Michael Mhlolo | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 22 February 2014 | Published: 30 June 2015

About the author(s)

Michael Mhlolo, Faculty of Humanities Postgraduate Studies, Central University of Technology, South Africa


Current views in the teaching and learning of data handling suggest that learners should create graphs of data they collect themselves and not just use textbook data. It is presumed real-world data creates an ideal environment for learners to tap from their pool of stored knowledge and demonstrate their meta-representational competences. Although prior knowledge is acknowledged as a critical resource out of which expertise is constructed, empirical evidence shows that new levels of mathematical thinking do not always build logically and consistently on previous experience. This suggests that researchers should analyse this resource in more detail in order to understand where prior knowledge could be supportive and where it could be problematic in the process of learning. This article analyses Grade 11 learners’meta-representational competences when constructing bar graphs. The basic premise was that by examining the process of graph construction and how learners respond to a variety of stages thereof, it was possible to create a description of a graphical frame or a knowledge representation structure that was stored in the learner’s memory. Errors could then be described and explained in terms of the inadequacies of the frame, that is: ‘Is the learner making good use of the stored prior knowledge?’ A total of 43 learners were observed over a week in a classroom environment whilst they attempted to draw graphs for data they had collected for a mathematics project. Four units of analysis are used to focus on how learners created a frequency table, axes, bars and the overall representativeness of the graph vis-à-vis the data. Results show that learners had an inadequate graphical frame as they drew a graph that had elements of a value bar graph, distribution bar graph and a histogram all representing the same data set. This inability to distinguish between these graphs and the types of data they represent implies that learners were likely to face difficulties with measures of centre and variability which are interpreted differently across these three graphs but are foundational in all statistical thinking.


bar graphs; conventions; p-prims


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