Problem solving key to maths engagement – new study

Problem solving key to maths engagement – new study

Are you struggling to get your students interested in maths? Focusing on the problem solving and real- world aspects of the discipline could help, new research suggests.

A common challenge for teachers is making maths a fun and engaging subject, and perceptions of maths as a dull, boring discipline in popular culture haven’t helped.

The pressure involved in achieving a high ATAR score is another factor discouraging students from taking up maths and science, according to some experts.

The most recent OECD PISA results show that one in five Australian 15-year-olds are failing to achieve the international baseline level in mathematics, leaving school without the adequate maths skills for life beyond school.

Studies have also shown that students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are more than three times more likely to display lower achievement levels than non-Indigenous students. For other students living in rural remote areas, it’s a familiar story.

Students thrive when problem solving

Dr Dr James Russo of Monash University and educational consultant, Michael Minas, recently conducted a questionnaire of 52 students in Year 3/4 and Year 5/6, who attended a school in Melbourne.

The aim of the research was to study how primary school students felt about learning mathematics through problem solving – and what they found was an overwhelmingly positive response.

Three-quarters of the 52 students said they enjoyed learning mathematics through problem solving, whilst around one-fifth of students were undecided.

The main reason students were positive about learning mathematics through problem solving was because it was challenging.

“No students in our study reported wholly negative feelings towards learning maths through challenging, problem solving tasks,” Dr Russo said.

“Although we need to repeat the findings in larger and more diverse contexts, our study results suggest that it’s relatively unusual for primary-aged students to feel negatively towards problem solving”.

One Year 3/4 student said that the exercise of problem-solving was “hard, but in a good way”, and “fun and interesting”.

“I also love it because it is always true! Sometimes it's funny. Super-duper fantastic”.

Students also enjoyed working on problems with connections to real-world scenarios.

“It makes it a bit more fun and a bit easier to understand,” another student said.

An additional reason for positive attitudes towards this learning approach was the freedom students experienced to collaborate with their classmates, which the older students in particular enjoyed.

By contrast, 11 out of the 52 students held ambivalent feelings about problem solving; like the majority of students in the study, they too found problem solving challenging, but did not feel as positively about it.

“I'm not very good with problem solving so I find them a bit tricky. I get a little bit stressed about it - that I'm not going to work it out,” a Year 5/6 student said.

The Year 3/4 group expressed more positive attitudes about problem solving than the Year 5/6 group (88% vs 62%), and older students were more likely to be ambivalent than younger ones (35% vs 8%). In addition, boys were somewhat more likely to hold positive attitudes and girls more likely to be ambivalent.

Students need to tackle tasks in their own way

Minas said the biggest takeaway from this research for school leaders is how important it is to have students working as genuine problem solvers.

“You can’t have students engaged in real problem solving if the lesson starts off with the teacher telling or showing the students exactly how he/she wants them to complete the activity they are working on,” Minas told The Educator.

“Teachers need to be prepared to let students select their own way of tackling tasks, as this is crucial if we are going to help foster creativity in our next generation”.

Minas said that to facilitate a more problem-solving based approach, principals need to ensure that there is flexibility in their school’s instructional model.

Changing perceptions

Minas said there are a number of reasons why the perception of maths being a “boring” subject persists to this day, but the new research suggests a couple of important ways to tackle this perception. 

“One would be to have students working on cognitively challenging tasks, as opposed to serving up repetitive, procedural-based activities,” Minas said.

“The students we worked with clearly indicated that they enjoyed being challenged and this enhanced the lessons from their perspective, rather than detracted from their experience”.

Minas said that this may be counter-intuitive to some people, who assume that the harder the challenge, the more kids may switch off.

“Another way to address the issue of lack of student engagement in maths would be to ensure that there are meaningful connections being made to the real world and the tasks students are working on”.