Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Mathematical word problems are some of the most difficult problems for students to solve due to their complexity and relationship to real-world situations (Şahin et al., 2014; Verschaffel et al., 2020). With math being known for right-or-wrong answers, these open-ended questions cause much confusion and frustration, specifically for students of various subgroups. In the last several decades, educational teaching expectations have shifted from engaging, self-created learning to robotic and redundant curriculum expectations that induce a ‘teaching to the test’ environment (Shafiyeva, 2021). Mathematics is the powerhouse of where students can experience and succeed with productive struggle learning that teaches the most desired qualities of the 21st-century: Critical thinking, problem-solving, perseverance, and stamina (Finley, 2021).

This explanatory sequential mixed method study investigated the productive struggle trajectories on standardized word problems of fourth grade students at an urban public elementary school. It was utilized to determine relationships between these trajectories and self-concept, word problem success, learner identification, and gender. The study included 36 participants: 16 gifted and 18 regular education students and two teachers. First, a 15-question Mathematical Self-concept Survey and a three-question Mathematical Word Problem Assessment were administered. Then, 12 concurrent think-aloud observations were held, examining students working a single word problem. Finally, semi-structured teacher interviews provided explanation and justification for the students’ problem-solving performances on the quantitative and qualitative analysis portions.

Using Kendall’s tau-b, the association between mathematical self-concept and word problem performance was positive yet not statistically significant for the gifted class, and negative and statistically significant for the regular class. From the student word problem observations, it was observed that the productive struggle process is a messy (non-linear) experience that differs for each learner. Surprisingly, all students experienced problem-solving frustration. However, those that allocated their problem-solving abilities the best were gifted learners, students with high self-concept, or male students. Furthermore, the teachers’ responses revealed that processing speed, standardized curriculums, standardized testing, and weak instructional practices were all factors influencing their students’ problem-solving skills. Overall, the findings show that elementary students have unique methods of problem-solving that are not well supported by the current teaching and learning strategies of mathematics.



Committee Chair

Ricks, Thomas

Available for download on Thursday, May 22, 2025