A qualitative study exploring learners’ experiences with mathematics in a Further Education College by R.C.D. (Chinty) Pettitt
I recently completed a qualitative study in a Further Education (FE) College exploring vocational learners’ experiences with mathematics for my MA Ed dissertation. This study was supervised by Dr Nick Pratt of Plymouth University, Associate Professor (Senior) Lecturer in Education (IMP), Plymouth Institute of Education (Faculty of Arts and Humanities).
The aims of the study were:
- To understand elements of vocational learners’ experiences that increased or decreased their motivation to learn mathematics as they studied Functional Skills Mathematics.
- To reflect on my practice and critically analyse the most effective ways to generate positive learning experiences in context.
Through experience, I have noted that many learners have difficulty with fractions, decimals and percentages and I also wanted to explore their experiences as they studied these topics. Participants in the study were given additional mathematics support either as 1:1 or in groups during their tutorial classes. They were asked to complete questionnaires, charts, and short interviews to get an insight into their experiences with mathematics in FE and school.
The findings indicate a general trend of increasingly negative experiences with mathematics from the early years of school to Year 3 and highly negative by Years 10 and 11. Comments ranged from ‘Great’; ‘Very good’; to ‘Frustrated, Boring’; ‘Not that good’; and ‘Didn’t like maths’. Experiences with mathematics topics at school were generally positive with addition and subtraction, and to a lesser extent with multiplication and multiplication tables. However, confidence was less with fractions, decimals, percentages, area and perimeter, and word problems. The most negative comments were reserved for algebra and geometry, for example ‘I am feeling stupid’; 'Struggle’ and ‘Not getting the letters/irritating’.
In FE, despite learners appearing extrinsically motivated to study maths alongside their vocational courses to progress, many still felt negative towards mathematics in September. They expressed concerns about attending compulsory mathematics sessions with comments such as ‘Nervous but happy to improve knowledge’ and ‘Don’t understand difficult information which was complicated and adds pressure’. Nevertheless, there were positive comments about attending compulsory college mathematics sessions, and over time some learners appeared to accept and adapt to their situations, and by October were attending additional Learning Support sessions or changed classes, although others continued to feel frustrated and unsupported.
During a group session in November, many learners had difficulty determining which denominator to use when adding fractions. Reflecting in and on action (Schön 1984), I realised that learners were also having difficulties with subtracting, dividing and multiplying, many not knowing their multiplication tables. In November, I was introduced to Singapore Maths (Hoople 2011) during a conference with the Cornwall and West Devon Maths Hub. I used Singapore Maths resources and mathematical tables to help learners develop their confidence when calculating with fractions. I also developed a ‘personalised maths dictionary’, with learners using their choice of coloured paper to record calculations and mathematical language; this was then used as a revision aid, linking colour to topic. This holistic approach to supporting learners at their pace and current level of competence in mathematics successfully increased confidence and motivation in most learners; for example one learner noted ‘Doing homework and keeping notes really benefitted me’, whilst another stated ‘I feel more confident with fractions and percentages’ and later said, 'Feeling better, beginning to understand maths better than previously. I get the work and can do the questions'.
If FE colleagues would like to read further about this study, my thesis will be at Plymouth University Library and I aim to publish further details in due course.
In the meantime if there are specific questions, please email Chinty.
Hoople, K. (2011) Singapore Math Mental Math, Grade 4: Strategies and Process Skills to Develop Mental Calculation Frank Schaffer Publications Ltd: Greensboro
Schön, D. (1984) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Aldershot: Arena, Ashgate Publishing Limited
Page header by Mark Spearman (adapted), some rights reserved