SECONDARY STUDENTS' ATTITUDES TOWARDS MATHEMATICS

Attitudes towards mathematics and associated anxiety have been known to plague students with diverse socio-economic backgrounds. The purpose of this study was to investigate senior high student's attitudes towards mathematics and to explore sex differences in attitudes towards mathematics among students in Accra. A cross-sectional data containing demographic information and attitudes towards mathematics were collected from 181 students made up of 109 boys and 72 girls. They were conveniently sampled from three high schools. Two anonymous self-administered questionnaires were used namely the demographic data questionnaire and the Attitudes Towards Mathematics Inventory (ATMI). The data was analyzed using the SPSS version 16 for calculating mean and the results revealed that there was a significant difference in attitudes shown towards mathematics between boys and girls. The school environment, teachers attitudes and beliefs, teaching styles and parental attitudes were identified as explanation factors that account for student's attitudes towards mathematics. Teachers and other stakeholders in the education industry should organize seminars and workshops for students, parents, teachers and school administrators to enhance and promote positive attitudes towards mathematics. Key words: attitudes, mathematics, secondary students, Ghana.






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Publication: Ife Psychologia
Author: Asante, K Oppong
Date published: March 1, 2012

Introduction

In today's fast paced world where individuals deal with information generated from computers and calculators to that of mental estimations of daily purchases, it is imperative that students become proficient in mathematics. Not only must learners deal with a wide range of operational skills, such as computing decimals, they must also understand underlying numerical concepts in order to succeed in a variety of day-to-day commercial and work place situations. Research centering on students' attitudes toward mathematics study has received increasing attention, and the most common explanations for gender disparities in mathematics achievement has focused on attitude that students have towards mathematics. In general, most of the studies reported that, compared with boys, girls lacked confidence, had debilitating causal attribution patterns, perceived mathematics as a male domain, and were anxious about mathematics (Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 2001; Vermeer, Boekaert, & Seegers, 2000).

The causes of the gender differences in mathematics attitude were found to be multifaceted, interactive and dynamic (Aikin, 1985). Those with low mathematics abilities are likely to have a more negative attitude towards the subject. They do not have the inclination to improve their skills in mathematics. Although the majority of research indicates that poor attitudes towards mathematics are related to lower levels of achievement in the subject, it has not always been found to be so. Brown (1979) conducted a study involving students enrolled in predominantly black high school. His results showed no statistically significant relationship between these students' attitude towards mathematics and their mathematics performance.

At virtually every grade level, from elementary school through to college, these negative attitudes prevail among female students and do not seem to change as they mature (Reyes, 1984; Willig, Harnisch, Hill & Maehr, 1983). Some researchers have found that strong differences exist in attitudes and perception of the usefulness of mathematics (Lockheed et al., 1985; Oakes, 1990). From the middle school onwards girls show less interest in mathematics and sciences. They have more negative attitudes towards these fields. The reason is that girls have relatively high levels of performance anxiety and little confidence in their personal abilities. They tend to attribute their success to luck, rather than their own effort and abilities (Cross, 1988; Fennema, 1984; Norman 1988).

Thus, girls' negative attitudes towards mathematics and limited academic confidence may influence their later career choices and steer them away from mathematic related fields. Steinkamp and Maehr (1984) who investigated students' attitudes toward mathematics in the high school years suggested that gender differences emerge partly as a result of the new learning environment that students face when they enter high school. At this level students are exposed to a greater number of male teachers and to a more competitive and unstructured learning environment that may undermine girls' self esteem and confidence in their academic abilities. This new environment could therefore contribute to subsequent inequalities in male and female students' performance in mathematics.

In general, most of the studies reported that, compared with boys, girls lacked confidence, had debilitating causal attribution patterns, perceived mathematics as a male domain, and were anxious about mathematics (Casey et al, 2001; Vermeer et al, 2000). The causes of the gender differences in mathematics attitude were found to be multifaceted. Studies conducted so far have identified six main factors that were found to affect student attitudes toward mathematics: teacher attitudes and beliefs (Uusimaki & Nason, 2004; Beswick, 2006; Beswick, 2007), teaching style and behavior (Harkness, D'Ambrosio, & Morrone, 2006; Schweinle, Meyer, & Turner, 2006), teaching techniques (Anderson, 2005; Kinney, 2001; Whitin, 2007) achievement (Hannula 2002, Tapia & Marsh 2001), parent attitudes and beliefs (Papanastatsiou, 2000; Wong, 1992), and students' classroom experiences (Fisher & Rickards, 1998; Forgasz & Leder, 1996), as being influential in making girls internalize the feeling that they are inferior to boys in mathematics. Studies that have considered classroom environments as a contributory factor to students attitudes towards mathematics, consider teachers' classroom behaviours to be a factor associated with students' attitudes (Gallagher & Kaufman, 2006).

Most of the studies on student's attitudes towards mathematics have centered on Western samples, whilst very few studies (Asare-Nkoom, 2007; Chamdimba, 2008; Yara, 2009) have been conducted from Africa. Limited data in this respect limits our understanding of the general phenomenon of sex differences in attitudes towards mathematics worldwide. The aim of this study is to assess senior high student's attitudes towards mathematics and to explore sex differences in attitudes towards mathematics among students in the subject in Accra, Ghana. It was hypothesized that there will be a significant difference between boys and girls on their attitudes towards mathematics as a subject, with boys showing more favourable attitude than girls.

Method

Participants

Participant for the study were high school students in the Greater Accra region in Ghana. Three high schools were selected based on the Ghana Education Service categorization of schools into first, second and third classes of schools. In each of these selected schools, students in their final year (Level III) were sampled. In all 184, students made up of 111 boys and 74 girls. Three student's records were excluded because their record marks were incomplete. Their ages range from 16 to 21 years with mean age of 17.39 years.

Measures

Attitude towards Mathematics Inventory (ATMI)

A well validated measure, Attitude Towards Mathematics Inventory (ATMI), developed Tapia & Marsh, (2000), was used to measure student's attitudes towards mathematics. The ATMI asks 40 items rated on a five-point Likert scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Undecided, Disagree and Strongly Disagree) divided on five subscales: Parent/ teacher expectations, Value of Mathematics in Society, Enjoyment of Mathematics, Motivation in Mathematics and Anxiety toward Mathematics. . It had a reliability Cronbach alpha coefficient of 0.97.

The sum of the subscales gives the total score of a student's attitudes towards mathematics. Maximum score on this inventory is 200 points. The higher the score on the ATMI, the more positive attitudes students showed towards mathematics. In order to use the instrument in a different culture from where it was developed, a reliability test conducted within the Ghanaian culture yielded an equally high reliability coefficient of .94 indicating that the instrument could be used in the Ghanaian culture. The reliability of the instrument was judged sufficient because the alpha value was well above .60 (Nunnally, 1967) which is the minimum requirement.

Procedure

The procedure for this study was explained somewhere else (Oppong Asante, 2010). Briefly the survey was administered during their mathematics class and instructions were read aloud by the researcher as they listened attentively. Instructions were in English, which is the official language in Ghana. Before the distribution of the questionnaire, the participants were assured that the data was for academic purposes only. The participants were instructed to concentrate hard on the task and to work speedily but accurately. Independent work was ensured by telling them that they were not allowed to consult fellow students. Questionnaires and pencils were handed out, and the students were to write the name of their school, the class in which they were in, and their own sex and age. They were given 30 minutes to fill in the questionnaire after which it was collected from them with the help of their teachers.

Participants were assured that the data will be used for research purpose, and that participation was voluntary. Approval for this study was obtained from both the Curriculum Research Division of Ministry of Education and the individual institutions involved. In general, all aspects of the study conformed to the code of conducts as prescribed by the American Psychological Association's (APA) Ethical Principles and the Code of conduct (2002).

Data Analysis Strategy

Data were analyzed by SPSS (16.0) for Windows. Internal consistency reliability estimate (Cronbach a) was computed for the ATMI. The level of statistical significance was set at 5%, and the independent t-test was then carried out to find sex differences in Attitudes towards mathematics. To measure the magnitude of the sex differences in attitudes towards mathematics, Cohen's d was used as the measure of effect sizes of sex differences. Effect size interpretation are usually based on Cohen's (1992) conventions which states that a d value of 0.20 is small, 0.50 is medium and 0.80 is a large effect.

Results

The results showed that boys had higher scores than girls on the subscales of the ATMI as shown in Table 1 and the values yielded a significant difference, t (179) = 5.27, p< .001, d =.80. The significant sex differences observed in the attitudes towards mathematics among boys and girls could be due to the large effect size of .80 for self-confidence and .68 for enjoyment as shown in Table 1.

It is not only important to find out whether sex differences are well established but also to find out how large these differences are. As shown in Table 1, the magnitude of the sex differences (d) appears to be large for the total ATMI score (.80) and self confidence (.80), medium size for enjoyment (.68) and Value (.56), and a small effect size of .35 for motivation. These were in accordance to Cohen's (1992) categorization of effect sizes.

Discussion

The present analyses suggest that high school males in this study showed more positive than towrads mathematics than females. Findings in this study indicated a clear-cut sex differences in attitudes towards mathematics mathematics between boys and girls in high schools in Ghana. Thus, the gap found in this study is in line with gender differences in cognitive abilities reported by some authors cited earlier.

There are a number of explanations as to why this sex differences exist. For instance, school environment can account for the gender difference in attitudes towards mathematics. Changes in mathematic-related attitudes are associated with developmental change in gender identity (Gallagher & Kaufman, 2006). During this stage, girls begin to firmly establish their feminine identity and thus become susceptible to social and environmental pressures that undermine their self-confidence and performance in male dominated subject like mathematics. The learning environment that students face when they enter high school in Ghana may interact with adolescent development changes in ways that may result in low interest in mathematics as suggested by Steincamp and Maehr (1984). Numerous studies have tried to identify the aspects of the schooling environment that contribute to the gender difference in mathematics performance. Existing research has concentrated on three general features of the schooling experiences namely organizational characteristics of students and classrooms, social interaction within the school (between students and school authorities, or among students themselves) and methods of assessment and curriculum content (Gallagher & Kaufman, 2006).

High school students become exposed to a greater number of male teachers and to a more competitive and unstructured learning which place girls at a disadvantage with regard to self-esteem and confidence. The large number of male teachers was evident in this present study where there was not a single female mathematics teacher in all the schools sampled. These teachers encourage boys in math performance more than they do for girls. This situation demoralizes girls as there are not any female teachers to serve as role models. This therefore supports the assertion made by Gallagher and Kaufman (2006) that the social interaction (between students and authorities) within the school could be the possible cause of girls' low attitude towards mathematics. The relative lack of appropriate female models for young girls to emulate limits female opportunities to develop interest in mathematics resulting in lower attitudes towards mathematics. The under representation of females teachers in the teaching of mathematics also affects females effort to excel in mathematics and their interest in the field. This is because they lack appropriate role models and same-sex mentors that would encourage their pursuits in mathematical related jobs.

Although the school environment plays a crucial role in shaping student's attitudes towards mathematics, teachers' attitudes and beliefs may contribute to the differences in attitudes towards mathematics between boys and girls. Teachers 'orientation could influence students as soon as they inter school. An observational study by Sadker 8c Sadker, (1995) revealed that gender differences in student-teacher interaction could adversely affect girl's interest in mathematics and science. Male students tend to receive more positive attention and encouraged more to think correctly and to arrive and correct answers, whereas females receive less encouragement. These stereotypic behaviours of teachers could lower females' confidence in their interest and competence in mathematics. Research by Hyde & Jaffee,(1998) have shown that due to this gender-stereotyped expectations, (girls are expected to compliant and boys to be independent and resistant to rules) teachers may unintentionally encourage boys and girls to use different skills and interest in mathematics as well as varying strategies in solving mathematical problems.

Attitudes and beliefs of parents of their children could be a contributory factor to the gap in attitudes toward mathematics among boys and girls. Social perception about what is preserve for girls and the preserve for boy's cold account for such difference. . Girls are generally looked upon to preserve the status quo of tradition, thus, in many cases, girls' education are curtailed by early marriage (Oppong Asante, 2010). Different set of behaviors are either rewarded or discouraged by parents, teachers and peers depending on the gender group to which a child has been assigned. Parents sometime hold beliefs and values that influence their children through the socialization. Parents gender stereotypes have be shown to directly influence their perception of their children's interest and abilities in mathematics, social skills and sports (Jacobs & Eccles, 1992), which could result in more positive perception for children favoured by the stereotypes of their parents. The way parents spend their time, the choices they make between activities and the sense of feeling competent that they project could send a strong signals or messages to their children about activities that are valued.

Limitation of the Study

The educational background of the participants was not homogeneous as there were wide variations in school standards in Ghana. In Ghana and within Accra, it was possible to classify schools into first, second and third classes in terms of educational and the caliber of resources personnel. In this study, participants were selected only from public schools. There is however, evidence of greater variations in Africa between urban and rural schools in the attainment of scientific concepts (Poole, 1968). It is therefore necessary for future research that may involve African subjects to consider the between and within subjects variation as a serious threat of measurement.

Conclusions

This study has showed that there are gender differences in attitudes towards mathematics which was strongly argue are as a result of socialization into varied gender roles. School environment, teachers' attitudes and beliefs, teaching styles and behaviour and parental attitudes were identified as factors that influence student's attitudes towards mathematics. The support of significant others and teachers encouragement may be partcularly important for girls' dwevelopmen of morepositive attitudes towards mathematics and towrads their own competence. It is recommended that the teacher should develop positive relationship with students and stress classroom activities, which will involve active teaching- learning process and students' participation in the class. Teachers and other stakeholders in the education industry should organize seminars and workshops for students, parents, teachers and school administrators to enhance and promote positive attitudes towards mathematics.

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful to the participants and the authorities of the particpation institutionsl for their cooperation. Many thanks to my colleagues, who read the draft manuscript, and made comments. The study was funded by the Norwegian Educational State Fund (Quota Program).

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Author affiliation:

K. Oppong Asante

Department of Human Development and Psychology,

Regent University College of Science and Technology, Accra, Ghana

Email: kwaku.oppong@reaentghana.net /kwappong@gmail.com

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