Positive attitudes towards mathematics and science are mutually beneficial for student achievement: A latent class analysis of TIMSS 2015

Year: 2019

Author: Berger, Nathan, Mackenzie, Erin, Holmes, Kathryn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Declining numbers of students electing to study mathematics and science is a significant issue as our society increasingly relies on workers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields (Kennedy, Lyons, & Quinn, 2014). Many students become less engaged in mathematics and science in the early years of high school (Plenty & Heubeck, 2013; Watt, 2004), suggesting that this is an important time in which to investigate student attitudes towards these subjects. Factors previously implicated in subject selection include confidence (Brown et al., 2008;), student enjoyment (Dowker et al., 2016), perceived value (Wang & Degol, 2013) and experiencing engaging teaching (Woolnough et al., 1997).

Person-centred data analytic approaches are important in the study of attitudes towards STEM education, as different subgroups may have particular needs, strengths, and outcomes (Wang & Degol, 2013). Such subgroups may go unobserved in variable-centred approaches. Therefore, in this study we investigate (i) what attitudinal profiles exist in Australian early adolescents towards mathematics and science, and (ii) how these attitudinal profiles vary by gender, parental education, and academic achievement. Data for this study come from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 2015), a major international comparative study of student achievement and attitudes. In 2015, 10,051 Australian Year 8 students answered the TIMSS survey with complete data on the six variables measuring 1) confidence in the subject, 2) liking of the subject, and 3) valuing of the subject, in both mathematics and science. Data were examined simultaneously for mathematics and science using three-step latent class analysis in MPlus and SPSS.

While most students were at least attitudinally receptive to both subjects, there were a number of students who either resisted both or expressed a strong preference for one over another. Positive attitudes towards both subjects were mutually beneficial – better attitudes towards both was associated with higher achievement in each – but boys tended to be more positive towards both subjects and so benefitted from this relationship more than girls. These findings contribute to our understanding of student attitudes and experiences in mathematics and science, and emphasise the practical role teachers play in supporting positive outcomes. The study also demonstrates how large-scale person-centred quantitative analyses can help researchers and educators to more thoroughly understand and support the needs of specific groups of students.