A study of the experiences of vocational students learning functional mathematics in further education colleges

Dalby, D.M. (2015) A study of the experiences of vocational students learning functional mathematics in further education colleges. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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The education system in England has long been characterised by a distinct separation between academic or vocational pathways in the post-16 phase. Until recent policy changes this division coincided with the point at which compulsory education ended and mathematics became an optional subject for many students. Those who failed to attain the widely accepted minimum standard of a grade C in GCSE mathematics, however, were often strongly encouraged to undertake a course to improve their mathematical knowledge and skills. This study focusses aged 16-19 and examines the learning experience of those who take a functional mathematics course alongside their vocational programme, as either a recommended option or a requirement of internal college policy.

Research regarding the learning of mathematics for these students within the context of Further Education is limited. The study adopts a holistic view of the situation to explore the main factors that influence the student experience, with an emphasis on gaining insight and understanding of students’ perceptions of their learning situation. Using a grounded theory approach with multiple methods, the research includes a series of case studies of seventeen student groups across three Further Education colleges, from which within-case and cross-cases themes are identified.

The research findings show how the student experience of functional mathematics is affected by a complex network of inter-linking factors associated with both the organisation and the individual. Although organisational factors such as policies and systems sometimes place constraints on opportunities, social and cultural influences shape student values and perceptions of functional mathematics. There is strong influence from individual teachers through differing interpretations of the curriculum and pedagogical approaches but social structures and relationships within the classroom are also important to students. In addition, the legacy of students’ prior experiences of learning mathematics has an effect on attitudes and emotions, despite the separation of space and time, indicating the significance of both cognitive and affective factors in this interaction of multiple influences.

Many students approach functional mathematics in college with prior experiences of disaffection and low attainment but the study shows how attitudes and understanding are transformed for some students within the college environment. Fundamental to these changes is the functional curriculum which, based on the application of mathematics rather than knowledge-acquisition, facilitates teaching approaches that present a new image of mathematics as a useful ‘tool for life’. Using materials such as contextualised tasks to make meaningful links to student lives increases awareness of the relevance of mathematics, leading to greater engagement and understanding.

In the transition from school to college there is a marked discontinuity of curriculum and environment, accompanied by value-changes indicating a stronger orientation towards adult life and vocational employment. Students respond positively to functional mathematics lessons where these values are embraced. Academic-vocational divisions, such as differences in values, culture, curriculum and approaches to learning, are evident at multiple levels in colleges and these produce tensions in the student experience of functional mathematics. Some effective bridging is achieved through appropriate classroom practices but coherence requires a multi-level embedded approach involving college structures and departmental policies rather than simply the actions of individual teachers.

The research findings suggest that reversing trends of disaffection and failure with mathematics amongst students can be achieved in post-16 education but this is dependent on changes within the curriculum and learning situation. In the light of recent policy changes in England that will increase the numbers of post-16 students taking a mathematics course and the prioritisation of GCSE mathematics over alternative curricula, this study has much to contribute to understanding students’ perceptions of mathematics and the factors that influence their learning experience.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Noyes, A.J.
Swan, M.B.
Subjects: L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC1001 Types of education, including humanistic, vocational, professional
Q Science > QA Mathematics
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Education
Item ID: 28308
Depositing User: Dalby, Diane
Date Deposited: 04 Sep 2015 08:17
Last Modified: 13 Sep 2016 21:38
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/28308

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