Oct. 2, 2017
A “Productive Struggle”
While the Alberta Program of Studies for Mathematics outlines broad goals for developing students’ problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, and attitude towards mathematics, the 12th grade Math 30-1 course, and its final provincial standardized final exam, are intended to certify the level of achievement of graduating students, and report the results of student performance against province-wide standards.
Are these two goals at odds with each other? This was the question Dale Block, Werklund undergraduate student and PURE award winner, investigated as part of his PURE project. Working with students in a second-year university calculus course who had taken the Math 30-1 exam, Dale asked for their perspective on:
- Is the Math 30-1 diploma exam an effective assessment tool?
- Does it help students develop a positive attitude towards mathematics?
- Does it help them develop proficiency with the curriculum material?
- Does it prepare them for university-level mathematics courses?
The participants had mixed opinions about the Math 30-1 diploma exam, and about mathematics generally. Certain participants stated that they love math, while for others it was just a necessary part of their career development. Some thought the exam had helped prepare them for the rigour and style of post-secondary mathematics, while others disagreed.
However, the participants all agreed on three points. The students thought that the standardized exam should exist at the grade 12 level, and that its current format (the all-or-nothing multiple-choice style) did not accurately assess their problem-solving skills and mathematical reasoning.
The defining feature for these students in fostering a positive and impactful learning environment was the teacher. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers, who strategically designed their course, make the diploma exam accessible. Teachers who scaffold learning effectively can help students develop the necessary understanding, skills, and confidence to tackle the exam.
For these students, the value of the Math 30-1 diploma exam depended on their experiences in class and the approach of their teacher. Organized, empathetic, and enthusiastic teachers could use the standardized assessment to develop capable and confident students, making the diploma exam a “productive struggle” – a phrase used by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Aligning the goals of mathematical understanding, reasoning, and problem-solving in both the exam and the course may make the exam a useful challenge.