While job growth in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in Australia continues at almost twice the rate of that of any other occupations,
recruitment in these areas is more difficult than for other professions, with lack of technical skills or qualifications cited as the main reason (DESE, 2020).
Indeed, both internationally and in Australia, there is continuing concern about declining enrolments in STEM courses and a narrowing pipeline to STEM careers. An important factor in improving enrolments in STEM is ensuring the development of positive attitudes towards mathematics and science. Positive attitudes have been shown to be important not only for achievement but also in students’ decisions to continue studying these subjects (Wang & Degol, 2013).
The 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) examined students’ general attitudes towards mathematics and science, including their academic self-confidence and the value that students place on mathematics and science as a way of improving their lives.
Responses from 14 950 Australian students from 571 Australian schools revealed that, in general, students who indicated that they liked mathematics or science, were confident learning it, and valued it, scored higher on average in the assessments than students who did not.
Attitudes towards maths and science
Australian students showed quite negative attitudes towards mathematics. Half of Australia’s Year 8 students said they do not like learning mathematics, compared to 35 percent of students in Singapore (Singapore was chosen as the comparison country as they scored highest in both maths and science at both year levels), and 41 percent of students internationally.
Attitudes towards science were considerably less negative, however, 28 percent of Australian students said they do not like learning science, compared to 14 percent of students in Singapore and 20 percent of students internationally.
Just 14 percent of Australian Year 8 students said that they were very confident in mathematics and 42 percent reported that they were somewhat confident in mathematics, which was similar to the international average and to that of Singapore.
In science, 16 percent of Australian Year 8 students reported being very confident compared to 23 percent of students internationally and 17 percent of Singaporean students. Thirty-nine percent of Year 8 students were somewhat confident in science, in Australia and Singapore, and internationally on average.
More than a third of Australian Year 8 students (38 percent) reported that they strongly value mathematics, compared to 37 percent of students internationally and 34 percent of Singaporean students.
In science, Australian students’ attitudes were well below the international average. Just 28 percent of Australian Year 8 students reported that they strongly value science, compared to 36 percent internationally on average and 42 percent of students in Singapore.
Compared to their female peers, Australia’s Year 8 males liked mathematics and science more, were more confident learning these subjects and valued them more. However, females who had the same level of confidence, liking, or valuing of mathematics or science as males scored at the same level, or higher than, their male peers.
The differences between advantaged and disadvantaged students were quite stark. Disadvantaged students liked mathematics and science less, they were less confident, and they valued mathematics and science to a lesser extent than did their advantaged peers. Of concern is that – unlike the achievement parity between males and females – whether they liked a subject or not, we're confident or not, or valued it or not, disadvantaged students’ average mathematics or science achievement was substantially lower than that of advantaged students.
TIMSS also asked Year 8 students to record the highest education level that they thought they would achieve. Around half (53 percent) of Australian students expect to attend university, with 23 percent expecting to earn a postgraduate qualification and 30 percent expecting an undergraduate degree to be their highest qualification.
Female students were more likely to expect an undergraduate degree to be the highest education level they will achieve, while males were more likely to expect to gain a non-university tertiary qualification, or simply complete secondary school. This reflects the reality of post-school education to a great extent – apprenticeships are still largely seen as a career path for males rather than females.
Of greater concern are the striking differences in aspirations for advantaged and disadvantaged students.
Around three-quarters (77 percent) of students from an advantaged background expected to attend university, compared to one-fifth (20 percent) of those from a disadvantaged background. The proportion of disadvantaged students expecting an undergraduate degree to be the highest education level they will achieve has declined sharply since TIMSS 2015, from 16 percent down to 8 percent.
Further, a growing number of disadvantaged students – 62 percent in TIMSS 2019 compared to 52 percent in TIMSS 2015 – did not expect to complete any formal education beyond secondary school. Meanwhile, the proportion of students from advantaged backgrounds planning to only complete secondary school has remained relatively stable at 10 percent.
In part, this is probably partly a reflection of the reality of lower achievement levels and poorer attitudes towards maths and science of disadvantaged students in Australia. In TIMSS 2019, for example, just 17 percent of disadvantaged students achieved the high or advanced benchmarks, compared to 51 percent of students from advantaged backgrounds. In PISA, at age 15, disadvantaged students are, on average, three years behind their more advantaged peers.
A range of additional barriers (see for example Tomaszewski et al., 2017) has meant that disadvantaged students hold less positive views about tertiary education and are more likely than their advantaged peers to want to (or have to) earn an income immediately after completing secondary school.
They are also more likely to be disengaged from the education system because of a perceived poor learning climate, which can have a profound impact on aspirations (Ainley & Ainley, 2011).