Study supports positive attitude to maths/science and academic achievement link

24 November, 2020

New research conducted by academics from Western Sydney University suggests there is a link between students having a positive attitude towards mathematics and science and their academic success in these subjects.

The study, which involved the researchers analysing responses from over 6,000 Australian students using data from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, also found boys tend to view STEM subjects more favourably than girls.

IEU-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke said this research was vital to understanding what discouraged young women from pursuing study and careers in STEM so teachers can encourage girls to participate in the fields.

“Early intervention and understanding of students’ attitudes towards mathematics and science will help inform teachers how they can increase girls’ involvement in these subjects and work towards eradicating the gender disparity that exists in STEM fields,” Mr Burke said.

As Australia tries to encourage more female students to pursue studies in STEM, the researchers said the findings will be useful in understanding why female students view these subjects more negatively 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.”

Boys more enthusiastic about STEM than girls

The study examined three separate aspects of attitudes towards science and maths: liking, confidence and valuing.

Analysis found six distinct groups of students whose attitudes differed towards the subjects.

For the majority of students, their attitudes towards science tended to reflect their attitude towards maths and interestingly, boys tended to have more enthusiastic attitudes towards both science and maths than girls, who were overrepresented in the group that was resistant to both subjects.

A few students had a clear preference for one subject over the other, with boys and girls appearing in these groups at the same rate, although students who said they preferred maths tended to hold the sciences in 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.”

However, the Prefer Science group viewed maths positively, possibly because they see maths as essential to the study of science.

Positive attitude beneficial to performance

Ultimately, students’ values and expected success in a subject predict their achievement in that subject,” the researchers wrote.

“If students are very confident in their abilities and very enthusiastic about the value of the subjects, they are more likely to do well.”

It was noted students that were enthusiastic about both subjects tended to perform better than students who showed a clear preference for just one subject.

Students who showed enthusiasm to both maths and science also had better results than students who 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.”

According to the researchers, teachers should aim to emphasise that mathematical and scientific concepts and skills are often related, in order to support positive attitudes toward both fields.

Read more about the study which appears in The Australian Educational Researcher here.

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