“It’s been a known fact for a while that maths is struggling”: A qualitative account of factors influencing students’ enrolment in high-level mathematics

Year: 2018

Author: Jaremus, Felicia, Gore, Jenny, Fray, Leanne, Prieto-Rodriguez, Elena

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

There is widespread national concern about the declining proportion of students studying calculus-based mathematics in Year 12. With possible shortfalls in qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers, who all rely on high level mathematics, the Australian government has signalled an urgent need to address these participation trends. Recently, the debate surrounding how to lift student participation in mathematics has targeted the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). Widespread claims that students are selecting ‘easy’ non-calculus mathematics to maximise their ATAR suggest that the ATAR system is to blame for the current Year 12 participation crisis. However, these claims contradict recent research showing that many students actually believe high level mathematics scales higher than non-calculus mathematics. In order to better understand the complexity surrounding the choice of advanced mathematics, and the importance of the ATAR in these choices, this paper draws on interviews conducted in six New South Wales (NSW) government schools, with 38 Year 10 or Year 12 students and ten of their mathematics teachers. We found several significant influences that arise during schooling, well before the ATAR comes into play. Some students enter high school already behind in mathematics and never catch up, while others, impacted by increasing complexity and a crowded curriculum, lose interest in mathematics during junior high school. By the time students reach Years 9 and 10 they have either self-selected or, more commonly, been placed into a mathematics pathway that will greatly influence their future mathematics participation possibilities. As a result of these pathways, few students are prepared with the required background knowledge for calculus-based mathematics when they reach Years 11 and 12. Hence, few are in a position to ‘game’ the university entrance system. Our analysis, aligning with broader trends which demonstrate decreasing mathematics achievement of NSW students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) testing, reveal that current declines in advanced mathematics course participation begin far earlier than the ATAR and that, as a result, the role of the ATAR in driving ‘choice’ may be less influential for many students then commonly suggested. We argue that popularly advocated top-down approaches, such as re-introducing university mathematics prerequisites to combat ATAR ‘gaming’, may risk exacerbating potential STEM shortages by driving students away from mathematics related degrees entirely. Bottom-up approaches, which support teachers and students throughout schooling, are needed to nurture participation in mathematics.