Research on solving mathematical word problems suggests that students may perform better on problems with a close to real-life representation of the problem situation than on word problems. In this study we pursued real-life representation by a mainly depictive representation of the problem situation, mostly by photographs. The prediction that students perform better on problems with a depictive representation of the problem situation than on comparable word problems was tested in a randomised controlled trial with 31,842 students, aged 10–20 years, from primary and secondary education. The conclusion was that students scored significantly higher on problems with a depictive representation of the problem situation, but with a very small effect size of Cohen’s d = 0.09. The results of this research are likely to be relevant for evaluations of mathematics education where word problems are used to evaluate the mathematical capacity of students.