Background Equation rearrangement is an important algebraic skill that bears on problem solving strategies beyond mathematics. The aim of the current study was to investigate the efficiency and flexibility of strategies employed in equation rearrangement in participants of varying mathematical ability and experience. Methods 36 adults (18 specialists in mathematics and 18 specialists in medicine) and 33 secondary school children participated in a computerized task of equation rearrangement. The task was to isolate one of three variables in simple equations involving only multiplication and division. The reaction times and the accuracy of the participants provided information on the efficiency of the strategies employed during the experiment. In addition, qualitative data on strategies were obtained in participant debriefings. Results We found differences in solving strategies across different groups of participants. Children often used concrete strategies such as inserting numbers, while adults who were proficient in equation rearrangement mostly applied standard mathematical procedures and pattern recognition. All groups became faster in equation rearrangement with practices. Children became more accurate even though the task did not provide feedback. Both adults and children often mentioned patterns without prompting indicating their important role in development of efficient strategies. The reaction times confirmed that pattern recognition was crucial in flexible use of different strategies. Conclusions Our results suggest that improved efficiency in equation rearrangement is due to practice in procedure and training in pattern recognition. More emphasis on both elements in algebra teaching might be beneficial. |