The introduction of the concept of the variable represents a critical point in the arithmetic–algebraic transition. This concept is complex because it is used with different meanings in different situations. Its management depends on the particular way of using it in problem-solving. The aim of this paper was to analyse whether the notion of “unknown” interferes with the interpretation of the variable “in functional relation” and the kinds of languages used by the students in problem-solving. We also wanted to study the concept of the variable in the process of translation from algebraic language into natural language. We present two experimental studies. In the first one, we administered a questionnaire to 111 students aged 16–19 years. Drawing on the conclusions of this research we carried out the second study with two pairs of students aged 16–17 years.
Elsa Malisani and Filippo Spagnolo have written an article called From arithmetical thought to algebraic thought: The role of the “variable”. This article was published online in Educational Studies in Mathematics last week. Here is the article abstract: