Creating a Context for Learning: Activating Children’s Whole Number Knowledge Prepares Them to Understand Fraction Division


  • Pooja Gupta Sidney Orcid
  • Martha Wagner Alibali


When children learn about fractions, their prior knowledge of whole numbers often interferes, resulting in a whole number bias. However, many fraction concepts are generalizations of analogous whole number concepts; for example, fraction division and whole number division share a similar conceptual structure. Drawing on past studies of analogical transfer, we hypothesize that children’s whole number division knowledge will support their understanding of fraction division when their relevant prior knowledge is activated immediately before engaging with fraction division. Children in 5th and 6th grade modeled fraction division with physical objects after modeling a series of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems with whole number operands and fraction operands. In one condition, problems were blocked by operation, such that children modeled fraction problems immediately after analogous whole number problems (e.g., fraction division problems followed whole number division problems). In another condition, problems were blocked by number type, such that children modeled all four arithmetic operations with whole numbers in the first block, and then operations with fractions in the second block. Children who solved whole number division problems immediately before fraction division problems were significantly better at modeling the conceptual structure of fraction division than those who solved all of the fraction problems together. Thus, implicit analogies across shared concepts can affect children’s mathematical thinking. Moreover, specific analogies between whole number and fraction concepts can yield a positive, rather than a negative, whole number bias.