Singapore pupils ace Math in international studies so often that it’s easy to forget there are some who struggle with the subject. How we can make their experiences in learning Math more positive for them?
In every school, there is a small group of pupils who frequently fail their Math assessments. They may be slow learners, less able or under-performing. Whatever the case, if not attended to, these “low attainers” will continue to fall further and further behind their peers.
Professor Berinderjeet Kaur and her research team set out to study the characteristics of these pupils and their experiences in learning Math. They also wanted to know how schools identify such low attainers and address their learning needs.
Problems with Math Learning
The team asked the Primary 4 pupils in their study to journal how they feel about learning Math. These were some of the common responses:
“I hate Maths. I found that it was very difficult because Maths needs a lot of thinking.”
“I love Mathematics when I understand, like when I first started whole numbers.”
“I feel sad about mathematics because I don’t know how to use a protractor.”
“When I am learning mathematics, I feel confused…because Maths is hard for me to learn. Problem sums is the hardest.”
They found that most of these pupils actually enjoy the subject initially. Math is easy and fun when they can understand the topic. But as it gets more advanced, they cannot keep up. Boredom, stress and even sadness are mentioned in their journal entries as they begin to find the subject more difficult.
The teachers also noted that most of them are easily distracted during Math lessons. Only a third are always on-task and able to complete class work on time, and the rest are unable to cope due to their difficulties in understanding the lesson.
Motivation to Learn
The team found that pupils’ belief in their own ability is a good predictor of how well they’ll do in Math. (See related article in Issue 29: Strong Links Between Self-Confidence and Math Performance.)
This group of low attainers is often not confident of doing well. When asked if they think they are good at Math, more than half said no, while most of the rest said it depends:
“50–50, my family tells me I am good in maths, but I always make careless mistakes.”
“Sometimes. Maths is very hard and I make careless mistakes.”
“Sometimes. Doing word problem I am no good.”
They are, however, eager to do well in the subject. When asked if they can do better in Math, pupils were optimistic despite their past failures. Most of them felt they could improve if they put in more time and hard work:
“Yes, focus during math lessons and not talk to friends.”
“Yes. Studying hard and not play games. Do more problem sums.”
“Yes, by asking my parents to buy assessment books and revise everyday at home.”
The Math teachers, the team observed, were very positive towards the pupils. They were generous with their praise and did not reprimand the pupils even if the answer was wrong.
The teachers were similarly positive when asked whether these pupils were motivated to learn: a majority of them thought the pupils were trying their best to learn and were capable of improving.
Despite this, only 15% of the pupils always sought help from the teacher when they were in doubt; more than 40% seldom or never did. It’s also hard for teachers to tell which students are having difficulties as they often elicit choral responses from the whole class during the lesson.
Meeting Pupils’ Learning Needs
Pupils may not be paying attention in class because of a mismatch between how teachers teach and how learners learn.
When asked how they would like to learn Math, many of the pupils said they’d prefer to do activities in groups, rather than individual work. Such collaborative learning allows them to consult their peers when they feel unsure.
However, teachers tended to use direct instruction most of the time. It was observed that teachers didn’t spend enough time consolidating the learning. This is important to ensure that pupils have understood the lesson before moving on to a new task.
– Berinderjeet Kaur, Mathematics and Mathematics Education Academic Group
The findings also suggest a need to rethink the way Math assessments are designed. The team found that teachers tend to set repetitive and procedural questions, which heightens the pupils’ sense of failure.
“If the pupils cannot do one question, there are 10 other questions they cannot do as it’s the same type of question over and over again,” notes Research Assistant Masura Bte Mohamed Ghani. “They would be making the same mistake 10 times.”
It only requires a little bit of extra effort to make learning Math more manageable for our low-attaining pupils. If we can be mindful of how they learn and take their needs into consideration, success in Math will soon be within their reach.