Why students continue to perform poorly in maths

Tuesday February 5 2019

Students need to change their attitude towards

Students need to change their attitude towards mathematics. PHOTO I FILE 

By Jamilah Khaji

The National Examination Council of Tanzania (Necta) announced 2018 form four examinations 2 weeks ago, among other things, the results showed a slight general improvement in performance.

Although the overall performance has improved, statistics released by NECTA reveal a problem that has persisted in our education system for year – failure in Mathematics.

Mathematics pass rate is still before 50 per cent. It was the worst-performed subject in this year’s results, followed by physics, Commerce and Book-keeping. The pass percentage for mathematics stood at 20 per cent. This is a vast contrast to the best-performed subject, Kiswahili, which had a pass-rate of 89.32 per cent.

There are many reasons which make students fail mathematics, but the main reasons, especially in public schools, is shortage of teachers. “In my school, there are more than 400 students, but there is only one employed mathematics teacher,” says a Mathematics teacher, Kitula Jalugula, who teaches at Mlimwa Secondary School in Dodoma.

“There’s a great ratio disparity between teachers and the number of students to be taught. This makes it difficult for one teacher to manage teaching a large number of students. It also makes it difficult for all students to understand what is being taught, considering that mathematics needs a lot of concentration, exercise and repetition,” he added.

Another reason is behind the failure in the subject, is the perception towards mathematics. Students have engrained it in their brains, that mathematics is a difficult subject. So no matter how much a teacher tries to teach in class, such mentality makes it hard for students to grasp what is being taught.

“Another contributory factor is the lack of basic mathematics understanding right from primary education. Students graduate to secondary without understandings the basics of mathematics. “This is partly due to the fact that Standard Seven examinations are given in the format of ‘multiple choice’. When a student passes, at times it’s not because he understood everything,” says Kitula.

Laziness is another factor that’s been closely related to failure in mathematics. As a science subject, mathematics requires a lot of practice through exercises. A student must solve at least ten questions a day in order to fully understand the ins and outs of the subject. But this isn’t being practiced by students, leading to failure in the subject.

Students cannot pass mathematics on their own, they need to be guided. At school, it’s a bit easier due to the presence of teachers, but at home, parents need to take up this role – most don’t. “Some parents don’t have the culture of monitoring their children’s progress at school, the students are given homework, but some don’t even do the homework, and the parents don’t even check to see how the child is coping with studies. “Parents should stop being over-reliant on teachers to do everything. They need to chip in too in an effort to help their child excel in academics,” the teacher says.

However, according to Elizabeth Gollan, a Chemistry and Biology teacher at Mlimwa Secondary School, some parents do not monitor or guide their children in mathematics because they do not know how to.

“The subject itself is believed to be difficult, even by parents. Lack of enough teaching equipment, for example books, only worsens the situation. Sometimes one book is read by more than 10 students at a go. You find that a whole class relies on only one book. This is a very big challenge,” says Elizabeth.

The lack of permanent mathematics teachers is also another problem that has persisted for years. There are known situations where teachers from one school are compelled to go to another when they get extra time, just to teach mathematics. You find a school has one teacher who’s responsible for teaching hundreds of students.

Students’ views

With all the known reasons as to why mathematics is difficult, students also have their own reservations towards the matter.

Steven Wambura, University of Dar es Salaam (Udsm) student pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology, talked about the negative perception towards mathematics. He traces the mental state right from childhood, and blames it on the wrong notions imparted to children by their older siblings. “Our old siblings made us believe mathematics is a difficult subject. So that perception sticks in our minds, we grow up believing that maths is difficult. This makes us lose belief that we can conquer the subject,” Steven says.

“Mathematics is easy to forget, it needs a lot of revision, many students do not spare time for revision and practice, the resultant effect is failure,” the teacher adds.

Further talking about the negative attitude towards the subject, Jenifer Mwansuka, a Udsm student pursuing a Bachelor of Science General, says that many students go into the examination room with a conclusion that they cannot pass maths, and that it is only meant for very smart people.

“This is the biggest reason for many students failing mathematics, it is not about teachers, learning environment or anything else, the biggest reason is mindset,” she says.

Jenifer further explained that being good in mathematics involves the ability to explain and think logically. “Many students are not capable of thinking logically, they are too messy with their lives and their books, they do not give themselves time to solve problems,” Jenifer adds.

Tackling maths

In an article titled “From visual to verbal – there’s more than one way to understand maths”, the author talks about the claim made by students, and other people generally, that they don’t have a “maths brain”. The author says that mathematicians think in all sorts of ways. There’s no one right way to think about maths.

“If you’re finding it hard to understand a piece of maths, then maybe it’s worth looking from another perspective,” the article reads.

Think in words: In an effort to help students understand maths better, the article talks about “thinking in words”. It states that not everyone prefers visual thinking. “Some people may prefer to think about mathematical concepts in words, or it may be more convenient to communicate a particular idea in words. At times teachers expect to see words in mathematics solutions. Mathematical arguments are often best described by sentences that tell a coherent story, with equations and diagrams included at appropriate points.”