Why do so many FE students struggle with maths?

By Steve Pardoe, Head of Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM)

There are numerous reasons why many young people struggle to achieve level 2 qualifications in maths resits – in many ways this is an easy question to answer. It’s harder though to do something about it.  This article suggests practical solutions to the profound and widespread issues faced by 16-19 maths learners and staff.

I asked FE maths teachers a direct question at a recent conference: despite 11 years of maths education, why do 16-19 year-olds fail their level 2 in maths? They were swift to identify five broad areas, and I agree with them:

  1. Learner psychology – a lack of motivation stemming from negative self-perceptions relating to maths
  2. Learning gaps – most resit learners have a spike profile of past learning, often with gaps in basic skills from Key Stage, yet are being asked to sit a GCSE exam
  3. Supply of teachers – recruitment and development of enough expert maths teachers, in the context of an overstretched FE sector
  4. Qualification content – a curriculum not feeling relevant and appropriate to these young people and designed to take two years of schooling not 30 weeks as in FE.
  5. Social acceptability – to say ‘I don’t like maths’, ‘I’m no good at maths’.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of self-belief, born of years of experiencing failure learning maths at school, and which in turn has led to a sense of learned helplessness, ‘I can’t do maths … and there’s nothing I can do about it!’.  This is often compounded by the lack of perceived relevance of maths to their daily lives – ‘when am I ever going to need this?’ – making it easier for students to disengage (quietly or otherwise), than face their demons.

The truth is, most FE students ended up in the lowest maths streams at school, often with the least experienced teachers, where expectations were low, and they were often expected to memorise teachers’ methods.  Maths, however, is an active and creative subject which requires students to think and reason … and struggle at times to understand it.  This is what many students don’t get.

“Just because you are struggling, it doesn’t mean you are failing.”

Jason Manford, comedian and anxiety sufferer

Or as John Mason put it:

“Being stuck is an honourable and useful state because that is when it is possible to learn about mathematics.”

The point is that FE students need to learn how to learn maths, to understand what is involved, and to have a sense of agency in the process. The teacher’s role then becomes more one of facilitation – offering students engaging activities to think through and discuss, providing encouragement (in relation to effort, rather than correct answers).  It is also challenge … holding back when a student says “I’m stuck”, being less directive and less helpful – instead listening, asking questions, and maybe offering a hint to keep them engaged, but not doing the work for them.

Practical ideas for developing positive attitudes towards mathematics in FE

It is no surprise that developing positive attitudes towards maths has become a major focus of CfEM, and the subject of a publication containing activities and resources for FE maths teachers to use with learners to boost their motivation and engagement. Using a ‘toolkit’ approach, teachers are encouraged to dip in to one or more of the seven sections to use with their classes:

  1. Building positive relationships
  2. Developing positive perceptions
  3. Fostering a growth mindset
  4. Building mathematical resilience
  5. Encouraging independent learning
  6. Encouraging ‘Talk to Learn’
  7. Valuing mathematics learning

Motivation and engagement has also been highlighted in a great many collaborative action research projects carried out by CfEM colleges and their network partners.  In these projects, FE maths teachers have shared reflections on their own practices and tried out specific new teaching and learning approaches and gathered data to evaluate these.

The results are very promising.

“The action research projects address FE maths challenges from many different angles, all focused on developing an inclusive pedagogy that benefits all. The projects have excelled in determining what works and what does not work to improve grades, motivation, resilience and understanding.”

Richard Kirtlan, CfEM Regional Maths Lead, ETF

A new (2022) publication, Changing the Experience of FE Maths, summarises the CfEM approach to action research. It’s an interim report based on projects done in the 2020/21 academic year, so please keep an eye out as there’s more to follow. It relays the experience of teachers involved in those projects, and it gives findings coming out of those projects.

This publication is positive. The teachers it features are professionally determined to improve the experience of maths for young people. It is full of ideas that have worked well in colleges. It acknowledges low pass rates, and that maths is a struggle for many learners in FE. But rather than battling on to deliver the same curriculum in the same way, it showcases how teachers are embracing the struggle.

“Enabling teachers to understand and apply motivational psychology is both a major challenge solvable through high quality training, and a topmost priority.”

The overwhelming collective sense of these FE maths teachers’ projects is that the “struggle” can become more of a positive experience.

How can we engage learners with repeated experience of ‘failure’ at maths?

Without being engaged in the subject, learners are unable to make progress towards grade improvement. Action research designed to develop positive or growth mindsets for learning maths have had positive effects.

“Teachers took more time to go through topics, and learners began to talk more freely and without fear of peer reaction or failure because coaches had worked on resilience and self-esteem.”

Particularly effective have been one-to-one/small group, out-of-classroom sessions. These provided a safe space for learners to talk without fear of judgement from their peers, as well as personalisation of intervention.

More specific practices that CfEM teachers found helped their learners to develop self-efficacy and resilience were as follows:

  • Using open questions and ‘low floor high ceiling’ tasks, that give learners more control and opportunities for success
  • Regularly reinforcing effort beliefs (maths is learnable and there is a direct relationship between effort put in and achievement, so it is worth trying)
  • Developing a safe learning environment, where risk taking, and mistakes are valued
  • Focusing on goal-setting – and interim sub-goals
  • Breaking down tasks into smaller chunks
  • Listening to students & develop positive relationships.

In conclusion, while not understating the challenge, CfEM teachers have found that it is possible to change FE students’ attitudes towards maths and enable them to progress towards successful outcomes – but it does require careful thought to avoid simply repeating their negative past experiences.

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