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Frustration in mathematical problem-solving: A systematic review of research

Academic Editor: Christopher Tisdell

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  • Emotions are an integral part of problem-solving, but must emotions traditionally conceptualised as "negative" have negative consequences in learning? Frustration is one of the most prominent emotions reported during mathematical problem-solving across all levels of learning. Despite research aiming to mitigate frustration, it can play a positive role during mathematical problem solving. A systematic review method was used to explore how frustration usually appears in students during mathematical problem-solving and the typical patterns of emotions, behaviours, and cognitive processes that are associated with its occurrence. The findings are mixed, which informs the need for further research in this area. Additionally, there are theories and qualitative findings about the potential positive role of frustration that have not been followed up with empirical investigations, which illuminate how our findings about negative emotions may be limited by the questions we ask as researchers. With the support of research, I consider how educators may directly or indirectly address rethinking the role and consequences of frustration during problem-solving with their students.

    Mathematics Subject Classification: Article.


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  • Table 1.  Literature search and processing of records

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    Table 2.  Studies selected for the systematic review and the role of frustration

    Author(s) Method Participants Role
    Bjuland [24] QL Student teachers positive
    Carlson & Bloom [27] QL Mathematicians (N = 12) inconclusive
    Chen et al. [18] MM Case study of a 9-year-old boy negative
    DeBellis & Goldin [26] QL High school students (N = 8) positive
    DeBellis & Goldin [10] T/QL 9-10 year olds (N = 19) both
    Di Leo & Muis [13] MM Grade 5 students (N = 57) negative
    Di Leo et al. [11] MM Study 1: Grade 5-6 students (N = 138); Study 2: Grade 5 students (N = 79) both
    Galán & Beal [16] QN Undergraduate students (N = 16) negative
    Goldin [23] T n/a both
    Goldin [5] T n/a both
    Goldin [20] T n/a both
    Goldin et al. [19] T n/a both
    Gómez et al. [17] QN Grade 9 students (N = 452) negative
    McCleod [21] T n/a negative
    Muis et al. [12] MM Grade 5 students (N = 79) negative
    Munzar et al. [14] MM Study 1: Grade 3-6 students (N = 136); Study 2: Grade 5 students (N = 80) negative
    O'Dell [29] QL Grade 4-5 students (N = 10) positive
    Presmeg & Balderas-Cañas [28] QL Graduate students (N = 4) both
    Voica et al. [25] MM Pre-service teachers (N = 114) inconclusive
    Weber [22] QL Case study of an undergraduate student negative
    Note. QL = Qualitative, QN = Quantitative, T = Theoretical, MM = Mixed Methods
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    Table 3.  Summary of the findings on the role of frustration in mathematical problem-solving by study participants

    Positive Negative Both Inconclusive Total
    Primary 1 4 2 - 7
    Secondary 1 1 - - 2
    Tertiary - 2 1 - 3
    Student-teachers 1 - - 1 2
    Mathematicians - - - 1 1
    Total 3 7 3 2 15
    *Note. The exclusively theoretical papers were not applicable so were not included (N = 15)
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    Table 4.  Summary of the role of frustration in mathematical problem-solving by study methods

    Positive Negative Both Omitted Total
    Qualitative 3 1 1 1 6
    Quantitative - 2 - - 2
    Mixed-Methods - 4 1 1 6
    Theoretical - 1 5 - 6
    Total 3 8 7 2 20
    *Note. DeBellis & Goldin [10] was included as a theoretical study as this is where the discussion of the role of frustration is dominant.
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