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Research in Mathematics Education, 2014

Vol. 16, No. 3, 234250,

High school students emotional experiences in mathematics classes

Gustavo Martnez-Sierraa* and Mara del Socorro Garca Gonzlezb

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Mathematics Education Department, Research Center in Applied Science and Advanced

Technology of the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico, Mexico, Mexico; bMathematics
Education Department, Research Center of Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute
of Mexico, Mexico, Mexico
The aim of this qualitative research is to identify Mexican high school students
emotional experiences in mathematics classes. In order to obtain the data, focus group
interviews were carried out with 22 students. The data analysis is based on the theory
of the cognitive structure of emotions, which specifies the eliciting conditions for each
emotion and the variables that affect the intensity of each emotion. The participant
students emotional experiences in mathematics classes are composed of: (1)
satisfaction and disappointment while solving a problem; (2) joy or distress when
taking a test; (3) fear and relief during classes; (4) pride and self-reproach during
classes; and (5) boredom and interest during classes. Finally, we discuss how the
theory of the cognitive structure of emotions and our analysis contribute to emotion
research in mathematics education.
Keywords: students emotions; emotional experiences; cognitive structure of emotions; research on emotions in mathematics education

In the field of mathematics education, most of the research on students emotions focuses
on its role in mathematical problem-solving (De Corte, Depaepe, Opt Eynde, & Verschaffel,
2011; DeBellis & Goldin, 2006; Goldin, 2000; Goldin, Epstein, Schorr, & Warner, 2011;
Mandler, 1989; McLeod & Adams, 1989; Op t Eynde, De Corte, & Verschaffel, 2006;
Schoenfeld, 1985). Among other results, these studies have confirmed that people tend to
experience similar emotions in the process of problem-solving. Following the findings of
Schoenfeld (1985) on metacognitions and beliefs as important contributors to the solution
of problems, Mandler (1989) explains that the confirmation or refutation of such beliefs
generates positive or negative emotional states. These states provide people with feedback
about whether to continue holding those beliefs or not. Mandler considers that the
emotional states of problem-solvers have several dimensions: the magnitude and direction
of the emotion, its duration and the solvers level of awareness and control of the
emotion. Thus, while attempting to identify different ways to solve a problem, students
experience different levels of intensity in their emotional states. In some cases the result is
interest and in others anxiety. When devising a way to solve a problem, the positive
emotions are felt with more or less intensity depending on the expectations of the success
of the plan. Students can feel pleasure or frustration depending of the effectiveness of
the solution.
*Corresponding author. Email:
2014 British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics

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Research in Mathematics Education


Similarly, for Goldin (2000) there are frequently recurring sequences of changes in
the emotional feelings experienced by individuals engaged in mathematical activities
together with their meanings and their cognitive interactions: for example, curiosity
leading to bewilderment (for a non-routine problem) and frustration, evoking new
strategies that result in feelings of encouragement (with progress) followed by elation and
satisfaction (with success).
Research on emotions (Hannula, Pantziara, Wge, & Schlglmann, 2010) has
outlined the necessity to move beyond the simplistic view of distinguishing between
positive and negative emotions. According to Lewis (2013), there are several reasons why
this has not been done: (1) it seems more difficult to build a solid theoretical basis for
emotions than for other affective constructs; and (2) quantitative analysis, for example
using survey methods, offers multiple possibilities to find cause and effect relationships
between attitudes and beliefs. Furthermore, Hannula et al. (2010) also noted the need for
research focused on emotions during routine mathematical experiences because most of
the research has focused on emotions and intense emotions in non-routine mathematical
In this study we have attempted to analyse students emotions in routine activities and
to go beyond a consideration of positive and negative emotions using the theory of the
cognitive structure of emotions (Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). Other researchers in
mathematical education (Di Martino, Coppola, Mollo, Pacelli, & Sabena, 2013; Di
Martino & Zan, 2011) have suggested that this theory is appropriate to analyse students
and teachers emotions in mathematics. We believe that they have not used the full
potential of this theory because they only classify positive and negative emotions. In
contrast, we use it in a deeper way since it is an excellent model to identify and explain
emotional experiences (emotions experienced in the past that are narrated by people).
This is grounded in the idea that emotions are triggered by cognitive interpretations of
events that people make, consciously or not; that is, that emotions arise from the
cognitive activity of individuals and are not the exclusive product of irrational reactions.
We are aware that the analysis of narratives of emotional experiences is quite different
from the direct analysis of emotions, but, like Ortony et al. (1988, p. 8), we are willing
to treat peoples reports of their emotions as valid, also because emotions are not
themselves linguistic things, but the most readily available nonphenomenal access we
have to them is through language. This is why we focused on the following research
question: What are high school students verbal expressions of their emotional
experiences in mathematics classes?
Theoretical framework
Emotions in the affective domain in mathematics education
McLeod (1992) used the term affective domain in mathematics education to refer to a
wide range of feelings and moods that are generally regarded as something different from
pure cognition (p. 576); it includes beliefs, attitudes and emotions as its specific
components. For McLeod these components can play the role of increasing stability (in
time), decreasing intensity and increasing the level of cognitive involvement (the degree
to which cognition plays a role in the response and the time it takes to develop). From
this point of view, for example, a story of repeated failures leads students to doubt their
intellectual capacity in relation to mathematical tasks and come to see their efforts as
useless. This results in a feeling of helplessness, which determines new failures that

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G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

reinforce the belief that they are actually unable to achieve success, thus developing a
negative attitude that blocks subsequent learning opportunities.
DeBellis and Goldin (2006) extend McLeods model to include a fourth subdomain
related to values, ethics and morals, clearly connected to the other three subdomains.
According to this tetrahedral model, in order to understand the role of beliefs and the
reasons why certain beliefs are so hard to change, we must consider the emotional
feelings and attitudes that support them, the emotional and attitudinal needs that they
serve, and the values with which they are consonant or dissonant (Goldin, Roesken, &
Toerner, 2009, p. 11). Thus, beliefs can meet emotional needs by providing defenses
against pain and guilt. This makes it very hard to give them up.
Attitudes and beliefs about mathematics have received more attention than emotions
in the affective domain of mathematics education. This can be explained from the point of
view of the models already discussed because emotions are generally the least stable
components of affect and are very difficult to study. As an example, DeBellis and Goldin
(2006) define emotions as rapidly-changing states of feeling experienced consciously or
occurring preconsciously or unconsciously during mathematical (or other) activity
(p. 135). As an alternative, the persons emotional experiences (understood to be
rationalisations and narratives of past emotions accessible through questionnaires and
interviews) can be considered as the object of study and an adequate theoretical
framework can be adopted to conceptualise them.
Recent empirical research shows that one of students most frequent experiences is
that mathematics classes can be emotionally flat and boring (Jablonka, 2013; Kislenko,
2009; Lewis, 2013; Nardi & Steward, 2003; Vogel-Walcutt, Fiorella, Carper, & Schatz,
2012). According to Kislenko (2009), this is due to the nature of mathematics: students
consider it to be abstract, symbolic, unrealistic and of no interest. It also has to do with
the nature of mathematics classes and students commitment, which is an important factor
for students enjoyment and interest. In this regard, Nardi and Steward (2003) found that
tedious and boring is one of the five characteristics of disaffection towards
mathematics. Jablonka (2013) analyzed 60 videos from six classes in Germany, Hong
Kong and the USA. She observed that, regardless of nationality, some students lie across
the desk or bend over backwards with their eyes half closed, others are not apparently
linked to the place and time in class, others sigh and drum their fingers on their desks and
others just keep playing with the pens. Jablonka concluded that these are students
expressions of boredom (or a similar notion for each country) in mathematics classes.

The theory of the cognitive structure of emotions

We have chosen the theory of the cognitive structure of emotions (OCC) to identify
students emotional experiences. For Ortony et al. (1988), emotions arise as a result of
interpretations of situations by those who experience them: emotions can be taken as
valenced reactions to events, agents or objects, with their particular nature being
determined by the way in which the eliciting situation is construed (p. 13). Thus, a
particular emotion experienced by a person on a specific occasion is determined by their
interpretation of the changes in the world:
When one focuses on events one does so because one is interested in their consequences,
when one focuses on agents, one does so because of their actions, and when one focuses on

Research in Mathematics Education


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objects, one is interested in certain aspects or imputed properties of them qua objects.
(Ortony et al., 1988, p. 18)

Different types of situations that elicit emotions are classified into classes according to a
word or phrase corresponding to a relatively neutral example that fits the type of emotion
(Ortony et al., 1988). For example, to refer to the emotion situation pleased about the
confirmation of the prospect of a desirable event they choose the emotion word
satisfaction because it represents an emotion of relatively neutral valence among all those
that express that you are happy about the confirmation of something expected. Similarly
for the emotion situation displeased about the disconfirmation of the prospect of a
desirable event, they choose the emotion word disappointment because it represents an
emotion of relatively neutral valence among other emotion words or phrases that express
that you are displeased, such as hopelessness, frustration or heartbroken.
The characterisations of emotions in OCC theory are independent of the words that
refer to emotions, as it is a theory about the things that concern denotative words of
emotions and not a theory of the words themselves. In terms of the distinction between
reactions to events, agents and objects, there are three basic classes of emotions:
Being pleased vs. displeased (reaction to events), approving vs. disapproving (reactions to
agents) and liking vs. disliking (reactions to objects). (Ortony et al., 1988, p. 33)

Reactions to events can be broken down further into three groups: fortunes-of-others,
prospect-based and well-being. The first group focuses on the consequences for oneself
of events that affect other people. Prospect-based and well-being focus only on the
consequences for oneself. Reactions to agents are differentiated into four emotions
comprising the attribution group. Reactions to objects comprise an undifferentiated group
called the attraction group. There is also a compound group of emotions, well-being/
attribution compounds, involving reactions to both the event and the agent simultaneously. There seems to be a general progression through the different groups of
emotions in order: first reactions to events, then to agents, and finally to objects. From the
previous considerations, OCC theory specifies three classes, five groups and 22 emotion
types; these are briefly laid out in Table 1.
To interpret emotional experiences in mathematics classes we have added two types
of emotions in the well-being group of emotions to OCC theory. We call them boredom
and interest. These emotional experiences are elicited by the appraisal that the students
make of their own cognitive state: (1) states of alertness and concentration, which
produce understanding and learning in the case of interest; and (2) states of distraction
and deconcentration, which prevent understanding and learning in the case of boredom.
Thus, we consider boredom emotions in situations like displeased about an undesirable
cognitive state of distraction and interest in situations like pleased about a desirable
cognitive state of attention.
Other theories have also considered similar emotions to those defined here as
boredom and interest. The control-value theory of emotions (Pekrun, 2006; Pekrun,
Elliot, & Maier, 2006; Pekrun & Stephens, 2010) is a comprehensive, integrative
approach to understanding emotions in education, which posits that achievement
emotions are determined, in part, by an individuals cognitive appraisal of control and
value. It establishes that boredom is induced when the achievement activity lacks any
incentive value (positive or negative) and enjoyment (considered the opposite of


G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

Table 1. Emotion types according to the OCC theory.


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Reactions to events


Types (sample name)


Pleased about an event desirable for someone else

Pleased about an event undesirable for someone
else (gloating)
Displeased about an event desirable for someone
else (resentment)
Displeased about an event undesirable for someone
else (sorry-for)
Pleased about the prospect of a desirable event
Pleased about the confirmation of the prospected of
a desirable event (satisfaction)
Pleased about the disconfirmation of the prospect of
an undesirable event (relief)
Displeased about the disconfirmation of the
prospect of a desirable event (disappointment)
Displeased about the prospect of an undesirable
event (fear)
Displeased about the confirmation of the prospect
of an undesirable event (fears-confirmed)
Pleased about a desirable event (joy)
Displeased about an undesirable event (distress)
Approving of ones own praiseworthy action
Approving of someone elses praiseworthy action
Disapproving of ones own blameworthy action
Disapproving of someone elses blameworthy
action (reproach)
Liking an appealing object (liking)
Disliking an unappealing object (disliking)
Approving of someone elses praiseworthy action
an being pleased about the related desirable event
Disapproving of someone elses blameworthy
action and being displeased about the related
undesirable event (anger)
Approving of ones own praiseworthy action and
being pleased about the related desirable event
Disapproving of ones own blameworthy action and
being displeased about the related undesirable event


Reactions to agents


Reactions to objects


Reactions to events and

agents simultaneously


boredom) is induced when both the achievement activity and the material to which it
relates are positively valued, and also when the activity is perceived to be sufficiently
controllable. In the control-value theory boredom and enjoyment are considered activity

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Research in Mathematics Education


emotions (in addition to outcome emotions related to success and failure, such as hope,
pride, anxiety, shame and hopelessness).
In contrast, our definition of boredom/interest (conceptualised from the emotional
narratives of students) emphasises individual experience and perception of a cognitive
state. Boredom has several components: (1) feeling as if time has slowed down; (2) a
state of under-stimulation or under-arousal; (3) lack of momentum, or a lack of
psychological involvement associated with dissatisfaction in the task situation; and (4)
an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels that it is hard to
concentrate and experiences a persistent lack of interest in the current activity. Our
characterisation is more related to the phenomenological characteristics of boredom that
can be found in studies in school settings (e.g. Belton & Priyadharshini, 2007; Nett,
Goetz, & Hall, 2011).
Continuing with the details of OCC theory, a persons appraisal of an emotioninducing situation is based on three central variables: desirability, which applies to
event-based emotions, praiseworthiness, which applies to agent-based emotions, and
appealingness, which applies to object-based emotions. The desirability of an event
is appraised in terms of how it facilitates or interferes with the focal goal and the
sub-goals that support it. The praiseworthiness of an agents actions is evaluated against
a hierarchy of standards, and the appealingness of an object is evaluated with respect
to a persons attitudes.
Among the variables that affect the intensity of different emotions are global
variables, which affect all emotions, and local variables, which affect particular groups of
emotions. The global variables include: (1) sense of reality, which depends on how much
one believes the emotion-inducing situation is real; (2) proximity, which depends on how
close in psychological space one feels to the situation; (3) unexpectedness, which depends
on how surprised one is by the situation; and (4) arousal, which depends on how much
one is aroused prior to the situation. Increases in these variables intensify the experienced
Local variables are tied to particular groups of emotions. Event-based emotions are
all affected by the desirability variable. Prospect-based emotions are affected by:
(1) likelihood, which reflects the degree of belief that an anticipated event will occur;
(2) effort, which reflects the degree to which resources were expended to obtain or avoid
an anticipated event; and (3) realisation, which depends on the degree to which
an anticipated event actually occurs. Fortune-of-others emotions are affected by:
(1) desirability-for-self, which is how much one desires the event to occur for oneself;
(2) desirability-for-other, which reflects how one evaluates desirability for the other
persons goals; (3) liking, which reflects how attracted to the other person one is; and
(4) deservingness, which depends on how much one thinks the other person deserved
what happened.
The only variable, other than the global variables, that affects the intensity of wellbeing emotions is the desirability of the event. Attribution emotions are affected by the
central praiseworthiness variable, along with: (1) strength of cognitive unit, which reflects
how much a person identifies with the person or institution who is the agent of the
emotion-inducing event; and (2) expectation-deviation, which reflects how much the
agents action deviates from expected norms. Attraction emotions depend on familiarity
of the object, as well as on the central variable of appealingness.
The intensity of compound emotions is affected by the variables that affect the related
well-being emotions and attribution emotions.


G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

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The Centres for Science and Technology Studies (CECYTs, to give its Spanish acronym)
are part of the offered options of the National Polytechnic Institute at high school level.
They are dedicated to the training of technicians. The National Polytechnic Institute has
17 CECYTs distributed throughout Mexico City. To gain entry to a CECYT, students
must take a standardised test (National Examination for Admission to the School
Education). This test is designed by the National Evaluation Center to evaluate the skills
and knowledge of students seeking admission to the countrys public high school
education. In practice this test is a criterion for allocating applicants to specific schools.
To enter the most popular schools, applicants are required to obtain a high score on
the exam.
The CECYT where the study was carried out lies to the west of Mexico City and,
compared to other CECYTs, it requires the lowest score in the standardised test. Most of
the students live in municipalities bordering the metropolitan area of Mexico City; they
come from low socio-economic backgrounds and most of their parents did not receive
college-level education. Most students mothers are housewives.
Due to the inflexibility of the curriculum, all students have the same mathematics
schooling path composed of six courses (one per semester) with five hours of each class
per week: (1) Algebra; (2) Geometry and Trigonometry; (3) Analytic Geometry; (4)
Differential Calculus; (5) Integral Calculus; and (6) Probability and Statistics. Generally,
there is a traditional process of teaching and learning mathematics in the CECYT because
mathematics classes focus primarily on the teachers explanation and the subsequent
resolution of exercises by the students.

We selected 22 students (aged from 16- to 19-years-old, 19 boys and three girls) attending
the Analytic Geometry course offered in the CECYT for students who have previously
failed the course, and have failed the sufficiency test at least once. Ordinary and
extraordinary tests are taken during regular courses. If a student does not pass one or
more ordinary test then they must take an extraordinary test. A student who does not
pass the course can take a sufficiency test (outside of the regular courses). This is the
mechanism by which students can be accredited for a course based on the demonstration
of skills or knowledge. The 22 students enrolled in this course agreed to participate in this
research. As we had no gender distribution control, gender was not taken into account in
the data analysis.
According to the CECYTs curriculum, students must attend Analytic Geometry in
their third semester. The participants were officially registered in their third or fifth
semesters, depending on the total number of subjects passed by each student. The
Analytic Geometry course is focused on developing algebraic skills to study elementary
geometric figures in the coordinate plane: straight line, circle, parabola, ellipse and
The teacher of this Analytic Geometry course helped us with the logistics of data
gathering. She was also the key informant on the context of participants and teaching
practices in the CECYT. One week before the focus groups, she distributed a

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Research in Mathematics Education


questionnaire to students about their academic history and some general aspects of their
preferences and plans for the future.
Only one of the participants had failed a complete grade at secondary school. The rest
of them failed for the first time at CECYT: 16 failed all courses in either the second, third
or fourth semester and six failed just some of their courses in any one semester. They all
failed Analytic Geometry, 16 failed Physics, 13 failed Chemistry and 13 failed
Differential Calculus. The reasons they gave for failing were: (1) too little effort made
to study; (2) not attending classes; and (3) lack of interest in the course. The most difficult
course to pass according to their experience was: Analytic Geometry (11 students),
Differential Calculus (seven students), Physics (five students), Programming (three
students), Algebra (three students), Chemistry (two students) and Geometry and
Trigonometry (one student). The reasons given for identifying these courses were: (1)
little effort made to study; (2) difficulty of the class; (3) lack of understanding of the
explanations; (4) dislike of the class; (5) differences between exercises in class and exam;
(6) lack of resolution of doubts in class; and (7) fear of the exam. All students planned to
keep studying to have a better lifestyle in the future and mentioned professional careers
such as engineering, computing, politics and international relations.
Data gathering procedure
Methodologically, we decided to access the students emotions from their self-reports of
experienced emotions because the focus of the research is on the students subjective
experiences of emotions. Thus, we carried out four focus group interviews of
approximately one and a half hours during regular mathematics classes. During the
mathematics classes, the Analytic Geometry teacher sent a group of five or six students to
another classroom to participate in the interview. Two interviews had six students and two
sets had five, each with two interviewers (the authors of this paper). The interviews were
videotaped. The interviews were conducted during November 2011, two months after the
course started. Most of the participants had met each other at the beginning of the course.
There is no agreement among researchers on the advantages of focus group interviews
to investigate peoples emotions. For some researchers, individual interviews are more
appropriate because emotions are personal. For others, it is precisely the interaction with
others, who potentially feel the same, that allows more free expression and recording of
emotions in focus groups interviews than in individual interviews (Krueger, 2009). We
decided to use focus group interviews because we observed during previous research at
the same school that students feel confident and comfortable in expressing their thoughts,
feelings and emotions about various topics in focus group interviews.
The questions asked in the focus groups were:

Generally, how do you feel in mathematics classes?

How do you feel when solving a problem in a mathematics class? How do you
feel when you cannot solve a problem in a mathematics class?
How do you feel when taking a test?
How do you feel when you know that you have failed a mathematics course?
How do you feel when you pass a mathematics course?

The role of the interviewers was to elicit deeper explanation of the use and meaning of
words and phrases used by the students to answer the questions. Following OCC theory,


G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

our questions intend to provoke students to talk about their emotional experiences in
terms of the eliciting conditions.

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Data analysis
The videotaped interviews were fully transcribed. In the transcript, students were
identified as Mn-Gk or Fn-Gk. Where M and F indicate the participants gender, n (1
to 6) indicates the participant identification number and k (1 to 4) indicates the focus
group number. Interviewers were identified as MI (male interviewer) and FI (female
interviewer). We include explanations in square brackets in order to clarify some of
the students expressions. According to OCC theory, to identify a type of emotion we
consider three specifications:

Concise phrases that express all the eliciting conditions of the emotional
experiences. We highlight these phrases with italic bold letters.
Emotion words that express emotional experience. We highlight emotion words
with italics.
Variables that affect the intensity of emotions. We underline phrases that express
intensity of the variables in the evidence.

For example, when solving problems M2-G1 declares that if he understands then he
feels good; from the point of view of OCC theory, understand is the situation that
triggers feel good. The evidence is presented as follows:
M2-G1: I feel good when I understand. I even want to go to the blackboard to answer the

Due to the daily use of the words that express emotions, it may happen that one word can
refer to two different types of emotions. To identify the evoked emotions we took into
account the eliciting conditions, just as OCC theory suggests. For example, students M1G2 (I feel happy when I can solve the problem) and M2-G2 (I am satisfied if I can
solve a problem) use different emotion words (feel happy and be satisfied) to
express their emotional experiences triggered by successful problem-solving. Both
emotions are satisfaction emotions (pleased about the confirmation of the prospect of a
desirable event) from the point of view of OCC theory.
Regarding the variables that affect the intensity of emotions in the testimony of M4G2 (I feel really cool [when I can resolve a problem] because I have already learned
how to solve the problem. It will be easier to solve more problems like this), the variable
likelihood (degree of belief that an anticipated event will occur) appears because the
student believes that he will be able to solve a problem in the future because he has
already solved a similar problem.

The participating students emotional experiences are summarised in Table 2.

Research in Mathematics Education


Table 2. The students' emotional experiences.

Reactions to


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Eliciting conditions

Emotion types

Mathematics class


Solve a problem /
Not solve a
Taking a test
Mathematics class


During classes
Solve a problem on
the blackboard /Not
Solve a problem on
the blackboard


Variables that
affect intensity

Strength of
cognitive unit


Students experience satisfaction emotions (pleased about the confirmation of the
prospected of a desirable event) when they are able to solve specific problems. When
this does not happen disappointment emotions appear (displeased about the disconfirmation of the prospect of a desirable event).
M2-G1: I feel good when I understand. I even want to go to the blackboard to answer the
problem. But I dont feel good when I am trying to do something I dont even know.
M1-G2: I feel happy when I can solve the problem because I can do it. In fact, it is very
difficult for me and I feel good if I can.
M2-G2: I am satisfied if I can solve a problem. I am more motivated with the extra points,
I even want more problems.

Satisfaction emotions are affected by the effort variable (the degree to which resources
were expended in obtaining or avoiding an anticipated event). This occurs when
the teacher gives extra points in the assessment of the students who solve a problem,
so the students are motivated to strive in order to obtain them. We noted this intensity
when the students used the quantity adverb more to express a superlative degree of the
experienced emotion.
M2-G2: I am satisfied if I can solve a problem. I am more motivated with the extra points, I
even want more problems.

The likelihood variable (the degree of belief that an anticipated event will occur) also
appeared in the belief of a student that he will be able to solve a problem in the future
because he has already solved similar problems.


G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

M4-G2: I feel really cool because I have already learned how to solve the problem. It will be
easier to solve more problems like this.

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Disappointment emotions are also affected by the effort variable. There are two possible
outcomes when students cannot solve a problem: look for help or quit the problem. In
both cases, the experienced emotions are more intense. The emotion word associated with
not solving a problem is desperate (we interpret this as a form of deep disappointment).
The following dialogue shows this:
M1-G4: Sometimes I am desperate because some of my classmates have finished the work
and I dont even know what to do or how to begin. I ask the teacher for help but it is useless
because I dont know the previous subjects and the teacher says that I have to do the same.
Then I am desperate when I see that everyone else has finished and I havent.
M2-G4: I am desperate if I cannot solve the problem and stop trying. I wait until the teacher
explains it later.

The emotions of joy (pleased about a desirable event) or distress (displeased about an
undesirable event) can be experienced when a student takes an exam. These emotions can
be unleashed depending on certain events: (1) if the student studied or not; (2) the
importance of mathematics to the student; and (3) the type of exam (ordinary,
extraordinary or sufficiency test).
M1-G2: When I study for the test I am calm and confident, but if I didnt study then I am
under pressure because I dont know and I want to pass the test.
M3-G2: I didnt study for the sufficiency test on Differential Calculus, I was desperate
because I couldnt solve any problem. I thought what am I going to do? What is the purpose
of giving the test to the teacher? I should have studied and I could have passed.
M1-G4: I feel under pressure and nervous because I am getting a grade. I will show if I
really understand or not.
M2-G4: In my case, if I studied I want to take the exam; I want to see what it is about and if
I got the chance to pass it. If I didnt study I get up earlier to make a cheat-sheet with the
formulas. I feel under pressure but not as much as with a sufficiency test.
M6-G4: I am confident if I am prepared for the test, I wouldnt feel bad. But if it is a
difficult test and I didnt attend classes then I would feel bad and stressed and trying to learn
quickly all the themes but it is really hard.

The effort variable affects the disappointment emotions of the students in a sufficiency
test, depending on the importance they assigned to this type of test. It is their last
opportunity to pass the course. A student can be expelled from school in the extreme case
that he doesnt pass it and accumulates failed classes.
M3-G3: I am more nervous on a sufficiency test. It is the last chance to pass the course.
M4-G3: Yes, it is true. In my case, I feel more nervous on a sufficiency test than on an
ordinary or an extraordinary test because I will be expelled from school if I dont pass it (for
low performance) or fail the course.

Research in Mathematics Education


Fear/relief and reproach/self-reproach

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In mathematics classes, students experience emotions of fear (displeased about the

prospect of an undesirable event) when they cannot understand the topic of the class. On
the other hand, they experience relief (pleased about the disconfirmation of the prospect
of an undesirable event) when they do understand the topic. Fear emotions are intensified
if students are asked to solve a problem on the blackboard in front of everyone
(realisation variable) because their teacher and classmates could realise that they do not
understand and they could then be the subjects of reproaches (disapproving of someone
elses blameworthy action). This situation could trigger self-reproaches (disapproving of
ones own blameworthy action).
M5-G1: In my case, I did not understand the teacher when I was taking Algebra for the second
time. She was an uncool and rude person. I feel bad just thinking about entering that class. I
didnt want to go and wished not to be asked to go to the blackboard. I was always thinking
that she will ask me to go to the blackboard and I wouldnt understand, then she would scold
me and they would laugh at me. Now, I feel good in class because I understand Analytic
Geometry. I would be happy to go to the blackboard if my teacher asks me to.

The perception of time is linked with the emotions of boredom (displeased about an
undesirable cognitive state of distraction) and interest (pleased about a desirable cognitive
state of attention). The students experience boredom when the time flows slowly and
interest when it flows quickly.
M4-G2: Yes [the class is boring] but only if you dont pay attention. If you pay attention
and understand, you can do the exercises and time goes on quickly.
M6-G2: [The class] is not boring or interesting. It depends on the attention you pay. I do not
believe they are boring, you knew these would come because you choose this school. As he
said (pointing at M4-G2), it seems eternal if you do not pay attention, but then everything
seems eternal. But if you pay attention and try to do the exercises then it goes on quickly,
really quick and even easier, you can think it is not tedious. But from my point of view it also
depends on the explanation and the attention you pay. In certain ways it is not boring.

This boredom state can be a reaction to the teachers explanation (agent). But if the students
consider it to be a good explanation then it will generate understanding and attention, as
stated by M4-G2 and M6-G2. On the other hand, not understanding the explanation will
provoke a lack of attention. The following testimonies show that understanding is a
consequence of the interest in the teachers explanation or in the classroom.
M2-G4: Some teachers go too fast. You barely understand what he was doing and the
teacher is already asking if you have finished. You said yes but you dont really understand.
So I think the teachers can make the class really difficult.
M4-G4: As my classmate said, it depends on the teachers explanation. If I understand the
class goes quickly, but if I dont get the explanations then it becomes tedious, boring.

The explanation is important but not sufficient for the students. The actions of the teacher
can also make a class boring. The students declare that a non-boring class is a dynamic
and entertaining one. On the other hand, a class is considered boring if the teacher


G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

explains without a real interaction with the students or without interaction among
classmates (he is always on the blackboard, dictation all the time, he just keeps
saying things). The following dialogue shows the above:

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F1-G1: It really depends on the teacher. You dont get bored if his class is entertaining and
dynamic. But you get really bored if he comes and keeps doing things on the blackboard
and you get nothing to do. I am always sleeping and yawning in these kind of lessons. This
happens just in Integral Calculus.
M2-G1: My classmate is right (F1-G1). Some teachers make their classes so tedious. They
always dictate. So the class becomes really boring, I am even yawning and wanting to get
out. But in a dynamic class, like in the actual Analytic Geometry lessons, I pay attention and
get interested.

For some students, paying attention in class depends on other factors that determine
motivation in class (the intention of paying attention/not paying attention). This will
provoke or slow down learning in a mathematical classroom.
M3-G4: I learn the lesson if I come in [the class] with the idea of paying attention. It
doesnt matter if the teacher goes fast or slow. And if I come in with the idea of not paying
attention then I act unwillingly, the lesson passes by. I think this is the reason why I dont
learn well.

If a student passes a course he experiences pride (approving of ones own praiseworthy
action) and if he does not certify then he experiences self-reproach (disapproving of ones
own blameworthy action).
M2-G4: I feel bad because they are all moving forward and I am not because I was just
having fun. It is a pity that my schoolmates graduated and I am still here.
M3-G4: It feels bad not to graduate with your generation, as my classmate said (M2-G4). I
feel guilty for this. I will work hard this semester but I will still graduate with another
The expectation-deviation variable affects the intensity of the self-reproach emotion when
the student does not pass a class but was expecting to do so.
F4-G1: I feel stressed if I flunk many classes. I dont know what to do because I have to
study for all of them. For example, I feel really bad if I flunk three classes and I dont pass
any one because it is my last chance or lose the whole year.

Discussion, conclusions and limitations

About the results
The results of this research are an empirical contribution to mathematics education that
helps to fill the gap in research about emotions in students daily experiences with
mathematics at school. By applying a complex theory of emotions, this research goes
beyond a simplistic view that only considers positive and negative emotions.
Our analysis found eight (fear/relief, satisfaction/disappointment, joy/distress, pride/
self-reproach) of the 22 types of emotions that OCC theory considers and two additional

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Research in Mathematics Education


ones (boredom/interest). Because eight of these emotions (fear/relief, satisfaction/

disappointment, joy/distress, boredom/interest) are reactions to events, we can conclude
that most students emotional experience is related to achievement goals (learn in class,
solve a problem, understand the teachers explanations, interest to learn in class, pass a
course, etc.). In contrast, the other two emotions (pride/self-reproach) are reactions
related to agents; thus, a minority of experiences relate to standards, principles and
values (in the sense of OCC theory). In addition, we did not find emotions arising from
reactions to objects. This can be explained in several ways. Firstly, it can be caused by a
methodological limitation because we chose situations in which students had to recall
triggering conditions. Well-being/attribution emotions may have been reported if we had
asked, for example: How do you feel when you collaborate with a classmate solving a
problem? This methodological limitation is inevitable given the way the situation was
presented to the participants. This leads us to consider a different implementation of OCC
theory in empirical research: ask participants for the situations in which they experience a
specific type of emotion. A possible question for this matter is: What mathematical
situations make you feel afraid or frightened? A similar question is: In what situations
have you been afraid of mathematics? Secondly, the emotional experiences that we
found reflected the participants circumstances: they are students focused on the goal of
passing a course in which they are enrolled for the second time.
OCC theory conceptualises the standards, principles, values, attitudes, tastes and
goals as the main determinants of emotions, because through them people appraise
changes in the world. The ordered sequence of the determinants of emotions is as
follows: Changes in the world => Appraisal supported by beliefs, values, attitudes and
goals =>Emotion. Future research may further explore the role of beliefs and values in
emotions in mathematics classrooms.

About the methodology and data analysis

The proposed data analysis had the complexity to go beyond emotion words for students
to focus on eliciting conditions. We consider that this is a methodological contribution,
derived from OCC theory, to analyze narratives of experienced emotions. Other studies
could analyze students and teachers narratives as we proposed since it has been shown
that narrative inquiry is relevant to an exploration of students and teachers affect (Di
Martino & Zan, 2009, 2011).
One feature to note is the data gathering procedure: focus group interviews. The
interaction between classmates, among those who share everyday experiences in the
mathematics classroom, allows the narratives to be relatively extensive and rich in
meaning. We therefore consider that future research could explore in more detail students
emotional experiences by collecting data through focus group interviews. It would also be
interesting to use other data collection methods that have proved to be very useful for
collecting personal self-reports of experiences, such as diary methods (through which
people provide frequent reports on the events and experiences of their daily lives) or
experience sampling methods (in which participants are asked to stop at certain times and
make notes of their experience in real time). We hypothesise that the emotional
experiences reported using these methods will be different from those we encountered
in this investigation because of the intensity variables.


G. Martnez-Sierra and M.S. Garca Gonzlez

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About theory
In a broad way, the meaning of standards, principles or values of OCC theory
corresponds to the meaning of beliefs and values in the tetrahedral model of DeBellis
and Goldin (2006). Thus, OCC theory is consistent with the tetrahedral model since
roughly speaking, it means that the states of emotional feeling carry meanings for the
individual. They encode and exchange information in interaction with other internal
systems of representation (DeBellis & Goldin, 2006, p. 133) and our emotional states
influence and are influenced by our attitudes, beliefs, and values (DeBellis & Goldin,
2006, p. 136).
On the other hand, we note two notable differences between OCC theory and the
tetrahedral model: (1) the tetrahedral model does not take into account personal goals;
and (2) OCC theory does not take into account the impact that emotions have on the
structures to support appraisals. Reconciling these two differences we consider that the
tetrahedral model of DeBellis and Goldin (2006) is complemented by OCC theory
through the concept of goals. OCC theory establishes the importance of goals in the
triggering of emotions as can be seen in the empirical data of our study. This theory is
also consistent with recent conceptualisations of the affective domain in mathematics
education. Hannula (2012, 2006), who considers that affect has cognitive, motivational
and emotional aspects, considers that goal is a motivational concept. Also, Schoenfeld
(2011), in his theory of decision-making, considers that a persons goals are a basic
component: decision making can be modeled and explained as a function of their
knowledge and other intellectual, social, and material resources; their goals; and their
orientations (their beliefs, values, and preferences) (p. 457).
A limitation of OCC theory for an analysis of the emotions experienced by students is
that it was originally formulated with no consideration of the specific settings where
emotions are experienced. Boredom and interest are important parts of the emotional
experiences in mathematics classes of the participants in this study, but they do not match
with any of the 22 types of emotions established by OCC theory. This shows the
necessity to expand and adapt OCC theory in order to consider specific emotional
experiences in mathematics classes. Future research could focus on other emotions that
should be included to capture the complexity of emotions experienced in mathematics at
The research reported in this article was supported by several research grants from the Research and
Graduate Department of National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico (20131863, SIP20121519,
SIP20111109) and the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico (CONACYT, Basic
Scientific Research 2012: 178564). We appreciate the help of the teacher, Maria Patricia Colin
Uribe, in conducting the fieldwork and the help of Marisa Miranda Tirado in revising this
manuscript. We are very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions for
improving this article.

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