Original Research

Towards an understanding of students’ thinking in learning new and unfamiliar concepts: Focus on the factorial function

Satsope Maoto, Kwena Masha
Pythagoras | Vol 36, No 2 | a288 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/pythagoras.v36i2.288 | © 2015 Satsope Maoto, Kwena Masha | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 01 March 2015 | Published: 20 November 2015

About the author(s)

Satsope Maoto, Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, School of Education, University of Limpopo, South Africa
Kwena Masha, Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, School of Education, University of Limpopo, South Africa


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Abstract

This study used participant observation to explore students’ thinking when learning the concept of factorial functions. First-year university students undertaking a mathematics methodology course were asked to find the number of ways in which five people could sit around a circular table with five seats. Using grounded theory as a qualitative research strategy, we analysed student responses and written reflections according to the sequence of their experiential realities: practical and textual experiences. This was followed by an analysis of their reflections on both experiences in a pedagogical context. We found that the way basic mathematics operations are learned impacts on the student’s ability to experience components of new problems as familiar. Consequently, they encounter these problems as new and unfamiliar. At the same time we found that engagement with practical experience does allow for the emergence of representations that have the potential to be used as foundations for learning new and unfamiliar concepts. The blending of practical, textual and teaching experiences provoked students’ thinking and ultimately their understanding of a given new and unfamiliar mathematics concept.

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