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Dealing with the challenge of underachievement in Mathematics

14 February 2013

Addressing challenges in mathematics achievement requires a multidimensional perspective. Factors affecting learners include emotions, habits, attitudes, and social influences.

Much has been written about how to deal with this challenge, which is impacting on the South African society at various levels, including the national economy. To be sure, unless a sufficient number of learners (Grade 12s in particular) achieve adequately in Mathematics every year, every facet of the economy is impacted negatively and growth is stifled. This challenge should be approached from a multidimensional perspective.

Factors impacting learners’ achievement in mathematics

Numerous variables determine school and tertiary mathematics marks. These include motivation, teachers’ expectations, cultural background and parental attitudes, and only partly explain the difference between achievers and non-achievers. It is important to investigate other factors, not just cognitive-contributing factors, to achievement at school, university and adult life. The use of questionnaires that identify and measure non cognitive factors can help us optimise achievement in Mathematics, as many of the roots of “problems” fall outside the cognitive field. A sound affective basis is an essential support structure for cognitive achievement. The following can, therefore, play a significant role in achievement in Mathematics:

  • Learners’ emotions,

  • Learners’ habits and attitudes,

  • The way in which learners’ process information,

  • Learners’ problem-solving behaviour in mathematics (problem-solving attitude and abilities),

  • Social factors like the study environment, the way in which they experience their significant others, the class atmosphere, the circumstances at home, and the teaching of subjects.

  • The role of teachers in facilitating improved achievement in Mathematics

An intricate configuration of interrelated factors plays a role in predicting success in Mathematics. The logical starting point for an improvement in learners’ Mathematics achievement seems to be teaching teachers ways in which to realise/ practise these factors in their own Mathematics classes. How can this outcome be achieved?

  • A hands-on, active, problem-centred approach to maths teaching and learning seems to be the answer, stressing experiential learning at all levels. It is also essential to link Mathematics to everyday life and career choices by using appropriate examples, and driving awareness of entrance requirements to less well known fields of study.

  • Teachers should network with colleagues in their region, sharing knowledge. The networking should link urban and rural schools, as well as high school and tertiary institutions. Empowered teachers will take ownership of their actions and drive genuine transformation of teaching, simultaneously inspiring core values and attitudes among other teachers.

  • The importance of looking for assets in teachers’ and learners’ environments should be stressed consistently, with teachers leveraging appropriate technology.

  • The communication of mathematical ideas, reflection (and reflection upon reflections – meta-reflection, self-discovery, etc.), should be stressed at all times.

This is where the SOM, SOM(P), BM(P) and the MV(P) enter the picture. These questionnaires lend themselves ideally to the facilitation of reflective teaching and achievement in Mathematics classrooms by focusing on, for instance, teaching the limited, specific technical language of mathematics as a generic and integral facet of the teaching and learning of mathematics, understanding and exploiting the pivotal role that non-cognitive factors play in attainment in mathematics, and, ultimately, facilitating reflective teaching and learning in Mathematics.


Mathematics is the subject that permits entry to sought-after study fields. Achievement in mathematics can probably best be described as “survival equipment for the future”. It is smart to take Mathematics, to work hard at mathematics and to achieve in it. I believe that most learners can pass Mathematics on the level required to obtain admission to their chosen field of study. To achieve this aim, however, it seems essential to adopt the Obamanian attitude of “Yes, we can”. While teachers should teach properly, our learners will have to realize that they, and only they, can achieve in mathematics.

Traits that are exceptionally useful in Mathematics classes include dedication, application, motivation, hard work, self-discipline, stress and time management skills and emotional stability. Implementing these questionnaires in Mathematics classes facilitate meta-reflection - reflection in, on and for action in Mathematics classrooms (Kuenzli, 2006; Schon, 1987) – a vital ingredient of success at all levels.


Kuenzli, F. (2006). Inviting reflexivity into the therapy room. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. Schon, D. (1987). Elucidating the reflexive practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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