Justified belief you can do it key to maths success
17 December 2019
Students who have a high level of self-confidence score consistently higher in maths, regardless of their interest in it or perception of its value, a new international study has found.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has tested students in Grades 4 and 8 since 1995. A long-term collaboration between university researchers in New Zealand, Cyprus and Sweden identified attitudes among Grade four (eight and nine-year-olds) and eight (12 and 13-year-olds) students toward maths.
They found between four and six different motivational profiles; some consistently high, middle or low, and others with mixtures of intensity across 12 diverse countries in three surveys conducted in 1995, 2007 and 2015.
Researcher Professor Gavin Brown from the University of Auckland says the study’s questions related to the students’ self-efficacy (their belief they can do it), enjoyment and the value they attached to mathematics.
“There were similar groups in each sample. For example, there were students who reported high levels of self-efficacy, enjoyment and value, and a group with low scores on all three characteristics. These groups had correspondingly high or low average scores on the mathematics test and students who had consistently low scores for confidence, value and interest had the lowest maths scores.”
He says the interesting result however, was that groups with diverse, mixed attitudes were identified in most of the samples.
“The students who were sure they could do maths but were not so interested in maths, or gave maths relatively little value, did almost as well as those who were consistently high across all three attitudes.
“By contrast, a group of students who agreed that maths was of great value, but were not so sure they could do it, performed almost as poorly as those who were consistently low performers.”
Among students with mixed scores, those with high interest and lower self-efficacy and value performed poorly, albeit a little better than the worst-performing consistently low groups.
Professor Brown says implications for teachers and parents are simple:
“Ensure students learn how to do mathematics, so their confidence is warranted, rather than rely on impressing them with the importance or value of mathematics. Teachers need to foster and develop maths skills in class on which a high sense of self-efficacy can be justifiably built.”
He says teachers and parents might like students to find maths interesting or understand that it is valuable, but interest and value don’t necessarily lead to competence.
“The best students in this study found maths interesting, valuable, and were sure they could do it. The next best performers were those who were sure they could do it, even if they didn’t like maths or care about its value.
The challenge for teachers and parents is to focus on competence in these domains and not to accept that interest or value are a good proxy for ability.
“So the data suggests that ensuring greater skill in maths will guarantee greater success in the subject; something everyone wants. Having skills to do primary school maths automatically and effortlessly will contribute to success beyond primary schooling.”
Professor Brown says the New Zealand mathematics curriculum lays the groundwork for broad and deep understanding across three large domains: number and algebra; geometry and measurement; and statistics.
“The challenge for teachers and parents is to focus on competence in these domains and not to accept that interest or value are a good proxy for ability.”
The study’s participants, who came from Australia, England, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iran, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Slovenia, USA and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, were evaluated using statistical cluster analysis in each country sample.
The findings have been published in a new book, Motivational profiles in TIMSS Mathematics: Exploring Student Clusters Across Countries and Time (Springer Open 2019) by Michalis Michaelides (University of Cyprus), Gavin Brown (University of Auckland), Hanna Eklöf (University of Umeå), and Elena Papanastasiou (University of Nicosia).
The book is available in paper and electronic open-access format.
Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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