Factors for and against Choosing Mathematics Study Post-16

By Lewis, Gareth; Forsythe, Sue | Mathematics Teaching, July 2018 | Go to article overview

Factors for and against Choosing Mathematics Study Post-16


Lewis, Gareth, Forsythe, Sue, Mathematics Teaching


The provision and take-up of mathematics in the post-16 sector is an issue of wide concern. Two recent studies give us a picture of the situation at present. Hodgen, Marks and Pepper (2013) provide a comparative study of provision and progression in a range of countries. This study found that the UK has low levels of participation in post16 and post-compulsory mathematics compared to twenty-four other countries surveyed. Those education systems, which are associated with high levels of participation, typically provide appropriate pathways for the study of mathematics in the post-16 curriculum.

The recent review of post-16 mathematics by Professor Sir Adrian Smith (2017) addresses the issue from two key standpoints: The economic need for mathematical and quantitative skills and the worryingly low participation of UK students in post-compulsory mathematics. It is clear from this report that pathways need re-defining and building, and that the provision of core mathematics, post-16, is an important component of future universal provision. In response to this situation, the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM, 2016) was tasked with increasing participation in post-compulsory mathematics through the network of mathematics hubs including promoting core mathematics.

This study describes an investigation carried out with year-12 students in two schools, under the auspices of the local mathematics hub, into factors that encourage or discourage students to study mathematics after the age of 16 years when mathematics is no longer compulsory. Students participated in a questionnaire and semi-structured interviews.

Questionnaire

Our reading of the literature identified a number of themes and the questionnaire was designed to explore these with the students in the study. These themes are:

* The nature and perception of mathematics as difficult, boring and tired.

* Confidence/self-efficacy.

* Attitudes: interest, liking, enjoyment.

* Utility: relevance, practicality and exchange value.

* Socio-cultural influences.

There were six items on the questionnaire: I like maths; Maths is interesting; Maths is useful; Maths is important; I am confident with maths; Maths is hard. Students responded using a 5-point Likert scale. Students were also asked to write about the main reasons they chose or did not choose maths post-16. The questionnaire was administered to 135 students: 47 studying A-level mathematics; 32 studying core mathematics (at only one of the two schools); and 56 who were eligible to choose A-level mathematics but chose not to do so.

Findings from the questionnaire

Not surprisingly perhaps, students who chose to study mathematics at A-level indicated more positive attitudes towards mathematics than those who chose no mathematics at all. Students rated mathematics as useful and important much more than they liked it or found it interesting. Students taking core mathematics scored nearly as strongly on aspects of affect (liking, interest, confidence and utility) as those taking A-level mathematics. Surprisingly, to us, 6 out of 46 of the Alevel students indicated low confidence and several indicated low interest in mathematics.

Of those who chose no mathematics, a sizeable proportion seemed seriously disaffected. This disaffection may have implications for students' future relationship to mathematics and with it issues of social utility and citizenship. It seems a pity that the legacy disposition for so many, including those with grades A, B and C at GCSE is so negative.

There are significant differences between populations in terms of their reasons for making choices, as evidenced in the open-text responses. Key reasons for not choosing mathematics were: "It is too hard/too much effort"; "I don't like it."; "It's not interesting"; "I'm no good at it"; "It's too stressful."

For instance, for those who did not take mathematics, half of respondents cited lack of competence as the key reason for not choosing mathematics, while lack of attraction was cited by 23, with 17 choosing lack of utility or relevance. …

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