Who Benefits from Diagrams and Illustrations in Math Problems? Ability and Attitudes Matter

Jennifer L. Cooper, Pooja G. Sidney, Martha W. Alibali

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


How do diagrams and illustrations affect mathematical problem solving? Past research suggests that diagrams should promote correct performance. However, illustrations may provide a supportive context for problem solving, or they may distract students with seductive details. Moreover, effects may not be uniform across student subgroups. This study assessed the effects of diagrams and illustrations on undergraduates' trigonometry problem solving. We used a 2 (Diagram Presence) × 2 (Illustration Presence) within-subjects design, and our analysis considered students' mathematics ability and attitudes towards mathematics. Participants solved problems more accurately when they included diagrams. This effect was stronger for students who had more positive mathematics attitudes, especially when there was an illustration present. Illustrations were beneficial for students with high mathematics ability but detrimental for students with lower ability. Considering individual differences in ability and attitude is essential for understanding the effects of different types of visual representations on problem solving.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-38
Number of pages15
JournalApplied Cognitive Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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