Australia’s results in the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) declined more than in any other country except Finland, with the largest decline in mathematics. Alarmingly, a 2022 report by Oxford University Press Australia (OUP) revealed that students who struggle with maths in early primary school will only fall further behind as the years go by.
Maths skills across student cohorts usually vary between one and two years in early primary school, and span up to three years for students in Year 3. But that gap balloons by up to five years by the time they are in Year 4.
The biggest shortfall identified in the study was when students reached Year 6, with one-third of the 228 teachers surveyed claiming that maths skills varied by more than five years in some cases. This means that students were at risk of commencing Year 7 with a Year 1 knowledge level and heightened anxiety around the subject.
“There is an overwhelming consensus that lack of student progress in mathematics results in confidence continuing to decline, and anxiety levels continuing to increase,” the report read.
This is especially concerning given the need to ‘future proof’ students for the workforce of tomorrow. The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering claims by 2024, Australia will need 100,000 more digitally skilled workers and by 2025, 40,000 more engineers will be required.
Lee Walker, Director of Publishing at Oxford University Press said that the results from the recent research are concerning. “The research reveals that the transition from Year 6 Primary School to Year 7 Secondary School poses a big challenge for both teachers and students,” Walker said.
“Over a third (36 percent) of the primary teachers interviewed observed that many students are attempting Year 7-level mathematics with inadequate knowledge and skills, which could be having serious consequences for students’ long-term learning in Australia.
“It goes without saying that our teachers have faced a challenging two years due to COVID-19 and increasing workloads. However, the diverse range of abilities among students in today’s classrooms will only add to teachers’ already limited time constraints,” Walker said.
“It’s therefore vital that educators, school leaders, and education organisations band together to provide our teachers with the support and resources they need to meet the challenges of the classroom and the varying requirements of their students.”
So, what can be done to address this trend in the classroom? We reached out to learning providers to find out what tools are available to support maths learning.
Emma Dean, maths expert at Firefly Education, said that student engagement can be improved by linking mathematics to real-world situations and processes. “It is important for students to see the relevance of maths in everyday life and feel connected to it,” she said.
“When selecting a maths program, it is important to consider the needs of students and teaching staff, and the availability of technology or resources at the school. A quality program should differentiate content for different ability levels and reduce the planning and workload of teachers so more time can be spent supporting learning,” Ms Dean said.
“In terms of the program itself, it is important that it aligns with the curriculum, is engaging and current, includes opportunities to support, consolidate and extend learning, and develops problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
Some online programs mark, record and collate results when students complete online activities, allowing student progress to be tracked. Students receive instant verification on their performance during activities, which allows them to seek clarification if required. They can also monitor their own progress by investigating their completion of tasks and success in specific topics. Teachers can view student results instantly and see where students or classes or performing well, or where more explicit teaching and support may be required.
World of Maths representative Tim Tritton said the needs of your class and students should be paramount when considering maths resources. “Determine what you want your students to achieve. This will help you choose an activity that aligns with your learning goals, while keeping within the curriculum. Also consider your students’ mathematical ability and select an activity that is appropriate for their level. An activity that is too difficult or too easy can result in frustration or boredom. Activities should also be able adaptable to meet individual needs.”
“Linking maths concepts to real-life situations can help students relate. For example, if teaching percentages, teachers can use examples of calculating discounts while shopping.”
“Students can work in pairs or small groups on maths projects and problem-solving activities which encourages them to share their knowledge while learning from each other. Positive recognition to all students can help them feel valued and motivated to learn more.
“Resources can be used to track student progress by analysing their results and identifying areas where they need more help. Online resources is one way to do this which can provide practical problem solving.
“Regular homework that covers the topics taught in class can help students practise and apply their knowledge. You can use these assignments to identify areas where students are struggling and provide additional support.”