What is the biggest predictor of student achievement in maths?

The most significant predictor of student achievement in mathematics might surprise you. Data collected from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has determined that self-efficacy has the strongest impact of mathematics achievement, outranking maths anxiety, previous performance, self-concept and general ability. Students possessing more positive beliefs about their capacity to learn mathematics will have better learning experiences and be more likely to engage in mathematics at a higher level.

Self efficacy is the impact of beliefs on achievement and learning. Essentially, self efficacy is the belief an individual possesses concerning their ability to complete a task. Self-efficacy is domain specific: knowing you’re a killer GA in netball doesn’t result in you assuming you’ll be a sweet half-back in rugby. Your ability to shred on the piano won’t lead to you believing you’ll be a great flautist. Similarly, belief that a student has about their capacity to achieve in English, science or PE, doesn’t correspond to the belief they have great capacity to engage successfully in mathematics.

Self efficacy has the power to positively shape students’ attitudes to mathematics, improve student confidence and achievement in numeracy. Students’ motivation, persistence, and dispositions in mathematics have strong foundations in their self-efficacy. The is crucial if we wish to engage more students mathematics and halt the decline in enrollments in advanced mathematics courses.

Students that have higher self-efficacy are more willing to take academic risks, such as being open to new ideas or pursue alternate solution. Critically, as students age, self-efficacy becomes a more significant factor in their mathematics performance. This is due to students encountering more feedback and this in turn feeds their self-efficacy, self-concept and affective domain.

Students with better self-efficacy are more likely to persist if they fail. They have the mindset that they are capable of completing a task, and are more likely to consider failure as an obstacle to overcome, rather than an indicator of lack of intelligence (this leads into an interesting debate of mastery vs performance learning: stayed tuned!)

I have written previously about the divide in mathematics achievement between students from high and low socio-economic status (see here and here). This divide is more complex than grades: it is linked closely to dispositions. More affluent students tend to have better self-efficacy. Indigenous students tend to have lower self-efficacy and higher mathematics anxiety. A concerning notion in a country that prides itself on the ‘fair go’ and equality of opportunities.

Critically, low self-efficacy tends to be associated with higher levels mathematics anxiety, which may lead to disengagement. It is positive to note that self-efficacy training can calm mathematics anxiety.

Increasing disengagement in mathematics is one of the most significant issues in contemporary mathematics classrooms (see here). Disengagement is concerning as it limits students’ capacity to understand life through a mathematical perspective, restricting their participation in further education and limiting career options. However, improvements in self-efficacy and self-belief result in better student persistence and achievement.

Self-efficacy is clearly a critical issue in mathematics classrooms. I’m constantly faced with disengaged students’ with ‘hopeless’ mindsets: they genuinely believe they ‘can’t do maths.’ Their self-efficacy is zilch. Yet many teachers I speak to have limited understanding of self-efficacy or how to build it.

Teachers have enormous potential to affect positive change in their students. A single teacher can spark interest and lead to a life-long passion for a subject. Similarly, a bad experience can result in a anxiety and disengagement that may persist for many years.

Endless positive reinforcement is not successful in building students’ self efficacy. I favour the approach of employing metacognitive awareness and self-reflection strategies: “CBT” for maths if you like. In doing so students have the skills to understand and change their learning for the better. It provides a real solution to a significant challenge for mathematics teachers.

The focus for this post has been students’ self efficacy. However, issues surrounding teachers’ self efficacy are significant and worthy of deep analysis. Hence I will devote a full post to this at a later date.


About madelinebevs

Mathematics and religion teacher and researcher. Runner. Home-renovation enthusiast. PhD Candidate. I'm excited by education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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