Mathematics practice makes progress

Principals hit out earlier this year after the International Mathematics and Science Study showed 13-year-olds recorded their worst ever maths results in 2020.

The Principals Federation demanded action from Secretary for Education Iona Holsted, citing the 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment, NZ’s National Monitoring Study of Student Assessment, and a generally worrisome trend of declining results.

“The national monitoring of student achievement shows a very low level of achievement for our Year 8 students,” Principal Federation Principal Perry Rush told Radio New Zealand.

“We have 45 percent of year 8 students in mathematics achieving at or above expectations in curriculum and only 20 percent in science. Now, those statistics should ring alarm bells.”

Mathematics is a core component of any school curriculum, and choosing the right programme is not only essential but a complex process. Schools must find a programme that will push students to reach their full potential by building confidence in cautious learners and extending challenge to more confident learners. Maths anxiety is very real, according to researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and Loughborough University.

“The feeling of tension and fear that many people experience when called on to work out a sum … can lead to behavioural problems in class, as well as physical symptoms such as butterflies in the stomach and a racing heart,” they explain on The Conversation. While maths anxiety can impact student performance, the researchers recommend encouraging learners and their families to engage in fun maths games, computer programs or apps, and working to develop positive attitudes towards mathematics especially in the first few years of school.

Following this train of thought, gamified maths is something modern maths programmes increasingly provide. Maths games come in all shapes and sizes, with some invoking a reward-style incentivised learning system and others building real-world contextual scenarios for maths problem solving.

How to choose a maths programme
For schools, the first thing to consider is flexibility. How do your teachers like to teach? How do your learners like to learn? A maths programme designed to teach hundreds of young people, with varying ability levels, should also be designed to cater to varying teaching styles. Less experienced teachers will likely prefer more structured material, and more hands-on support. On the other hand, customisability and having more control over content and resources will appeal to more seasoned staff members.

Tracking individual and class progress
One of the core features that maths programmes offer is the delivery of engaging and personalised learning for students. Student self-assessment is one option for schools to consider with new programmes. Here, learners are given more agency over their learning pathway and navigate app or web-based feedback without the constant need for a teacher to be present.

Teachers should be able to access and use the programme’s learner data and tools to adapt or alter the way they instruct students over the course of a unit or topic. For programmes that prioritise blended learning, or non web-based learning, in-class growth mindset strategies are a critical component, focussed on eradicating maths anxiety by building confidence through practice. The emphasis to students here is locating connections between new material and mastered material so that foundational skills are steadily applied in many different contexts.

Programmes that provide both online and printable materials are often popular. Schools should aim for a programme that empowers students to work conscientiously but at their own pace, so that teachers are empowered to focus in on specific topics or aspects as needed. Keeping a record of student responses to your existing and any new programme should help you to create a profile of your school’s mathematics pedagogy that can enable you to make more meaningful and efficient improvements. Tracking progress through assessment, student feedback, and in-class in-activity observations should always help guide decision-making and instruction planning.

Boosting student engagement
Research has shown that self-confidence in maths degrades with age, particularly for girls and Māori learners. A 2019 New Zealand study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal tackled the issue of mathematics ‘self-concept’, or self-perception, among students. The three-year longitudinal study found that girls tend to have a consistently lower self-concept in maths than boys, irrespective of ability, and that while Māori, Asian, and Other students’ initial mathematics self-concept was higher than that of New Zealand European and Pacific Islanders’ at the beginning of the study, Māori students’ self-concept in maths significantly declined over three years.

Researchers Penelope Watson, Christine Rubie-Davies, and Kane Meissel discussed possible reasons for this, noting that social comparison and teacher expectations hold a lot of influence. They established that learner agency can help mitigate these trends in the classroom, and positive outcomes are associated with pedagogy that prioritises collaboration over competition in the classroom; self-chosen activities, buddy systems, and mixed ability groups help discourage social comparison, where students would compare themselves to their peers.

Encouraging a supportive classroom environment is key to boosting a positive self-image in maths but the study also highlighted value in teachers having high expectations for all students, rather than reinforcing stereotypes about mathematics potential for girls or students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Rosie Clarke

Rosie is the managing editor here at Multimedia Pty Ltd, working across School News New Zealand and School News Australia. She has spent 10+ years in B2B journalism, and has spent some time over the last couple of years teaching as a sessional academic. Feel free to contact her at any time with editorial or magazine content enquiries.
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