In 1989, John Bransford and his colleagues at the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University asked two groups of students to read various passages of technical information. Members of the first group, called the “facts oriented’’ group, were told to remember as much as they could from the passages they had read. Members of the second group, the “problem oriented’’ group, were asked to read the text as though they were planning a trip down the Amazon River.
When tested later on their recall, students in the fact-oriented group gave vague answers, never mentioning any of the specific information they had read. The problem-oriented students, in contrast, recalled a wealth of information, such as the kinds of food they might take and the weight of the water they would carry.
Thus, writes McDonnell Foundation president John Bruer in his book, Schools for Thought, the seeds were planted for what would eventually become “The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury.’'
What the researchers had discovered was that people store and retrieve knowledge better when the information is presented in the context of a realistic problem. What would happen, they wondered, if they “anchored’’ mathematics instruction that way? The Jasper series, a succession of fictional, videodisc adventures about Jasper Woodbury and his friends, was their answer. [See Teacher Magazine, February 1992.] Each episode progresses through a series of difficult problems students must solve. In “A Capital Idea,’' for example, students’ ultimate task is to determine how much money a recycling project might earn. The facts needed to solve the problem are embedded like clues in the video production.
Bransford and his colleagues tested some of the Jasper adventures in five schools with good results. In that study, all 534 students started out roughly on par in terms of mathematical ability and their attitudes toward the subject. But, by the end of the school year, the 221 Jasper students did significantly better on one-step, two-step, and multi-step word problems than the comparison group.
Moreover, the math anxiety those students reported at the beginning of the year had decreased. At year’s end, their attitudes toward the subject and their willingness to tackle difficult problems surpassed those of students who had not taken the Jasper curriculum.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Who Is Jasper Woodbury?