Recent reports have shown that the academic performance of Australian students in maths and science has been sliding in recent years. The findings come amid a push to restore a “back to basics” approach to learning in schools.
Earlier this year, consultation completed during the review of the NSW Curriculum found 98% of teachers believed excess syllabus content was leading to “diminished educational outcomes” for students, particularly in the core subjects.
NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, said the overhaul will address this by allowing teachers the time and support to drive greater student outcomes in maths, English and science.
Meanwhile, researchers are keen to understand other contributing factors to improved academic outcomes in the core subjects.
A recent study of student attitudes towards science and maths by Western Sydney University researchers Dr Nathan Berger, Dr Erin Mackenzie, and Professor Kathryn Holmes has shed some light on this, noting a link between having a positive outlook on both subjects and academic success.
The report, titled: ‘Positive attitudes towards mathematics and science are mutually beneficial for student achievement: a latent profile analysis of TIMSS 2015’, analysed the responses of more than 6,000 Australian students.
The academics say their research is useful in understanding why they view these subjects less positively than their male counterparts.
“Many students, but particularly girls, become less engaged in mathematics and science in the early years of secondary school,” the researchers wrote.
“Empirical evidence shows that students’ attitudes towards mathematics and science influence their academic achievement and desire to continue studying these subjects.”
The study focused on three attitudes towards science and maths: liking, confidence, and valuing. The analysis found six distinct groups of students who had different attitudes towards the subjects.
For most students, their attitudes towards science tended to mirror their attitudes towards maths.
Interestingly, boys tended to have more enthusiastic attitudes towards both subjects than girls, who were overrepresented in the group that was resistant to both subjects.
A small number of students had a clear preference for one subject over the other. Boys and girls appeared in these groups at the same rate. However, the students categorised as preferring maths tended to hold the sciences in relatively lower regard.
“The Prefer Mathematics group held negative attitudes to science, possibly indicating that they viewed mathematics as being quite distinct from science and able to be studied without dependence on science knowledge, the researchers wrote.
On the other hand, the Prefer Science students had positive views of maths, possibly because they see maths as essential to the study of science.
Overall, “students’ values and expected success in a subject predict their achievement in that subject,” the researchers write. If students are very confident in their abilities and very enthusiastic about the value of the subjects, they are more likely to do well.
Notably, students that were enthusiastic about both subjects tended to perform better than students that showed a clear preference for just one subject. They also showed better results than students that were either resistant or just receptive to both subjects.
“While possessing positive attitudes in both subjects is most beneficial, having very positive attitudes in at least one subject is more beneficial than moderate or low attitudes in both.”
“The broad alignment between attitudes towards mathematics and science was encouraging given mathematics is integral to most of the sciences and that high self-concept in mathematics can lead people to take science-based courses in higher education.”