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The mismatch between grades and knowledge

Anxiety is the main cause of why students “freeze” in Maths exams. They can have difficulty finding a way to “visualise a problem”, leading to anxiety, sometimes “over anxiety,” thus making careless mistakes due to stress.

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A White Library in the Middle of Stuttgart, Germany [Photo: Unsplash]

With students heading and parents worrying about impending school exams in a month, it is not a waste of time to delve into why students are in school and why their child may be having some common anxiety among others, such as handwriting difficulties or the understanding of maths concepts. What are some ways how to support them?

One of the things expected of teachers, perhaps of parents too of secondary school students, is fast, fluent, legible and neat handwriting. Teachers require students to be able to take down class notes quickly. Secondary school is ruled by time constraints, class periods, and the need to move from one subject or task to another quickly to cover the curriculum. Not every school has students with laptop computers, or are allowed in class.

Neurodiversity or neurological differences exist not only in society but also among students. They are not to be rejected but respected, just like any other human variation including diversity in race, ethnicity, gender identity, or religion. Human variation exists;

Students no exception. Thus some students have difficulty with Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (the three R’s).

Handwriting

Handwriting is just one part of literacy. When students enter secondary schools there is a noticeable variation in their handwriting skills.

In primary school, when I was a student, there was the Handwriting book, unheard of today.  Thus students may have two styles of taking notes and writing. One is produced quickly, called the rough Note Book, used for note taking and might appear untidy, but still legible to the student, the other is a good quality script, used for more formal purposes.

Teachers reading answers of a poor handwriting student whose writing is illegible, due to handwriting or spelling or both, may have to guess the word(s).

Theories for bad handwriting

Various theories are proposed as the underlying cause of handwriting difficulties. Some focus on the student whereas others locate the problem within the structure of the education system, like inadequate teaching, a failure to provide opportunities to consolidate learning and missed opportunities to practice, especially during COVID-19.

Research shows us handwriting that is legible and written at an age-appropriate speed. An average secondary student produces legible handwriting in Year 11 at 16 words per minute, whereas a Year 7 student does it in 13.8 wpm.

We need to discount other factors including underlying learning difficulties, fatigue, whether English is the second language and whether students know what they want or need to write. Besides, in Secondary Schools, they don’t have the time to teach handwriting in other curriculum contexts.

Hand-eye coordination is required to develop fluent writing, besides letter formation and organisation. This condition is called “dyslexia” which can also cause difficulty reading numbers and following word problems. 

Possible intervention to prevent bad writing

  1. Visual focus
  2. Letter Formation
  3. Organisation
  4. Technology

Poor in Maths

There are a number of reasons why a child/student may be having problems with Mathematics at school. These vary from low motivation caused by Maths anxiety to a poor understanding of how to apply and perform mathematical operations.

But sometimes, the root cause of underperformance is something quite different, like motor skills difficulty. The medical term is “dyscalculia”, which some individuals struggle with performing basic calculations and having trouble manipulating numbers. This condition can cause to “re-order digits” when solving problems correctly, but recording the answer in the wrong way. They may even skip a step or struggle to focus and be unable to re-check their work when they have finished a problem. The real reason is that they become distracted by number formation that they make careless errors or get the steps in an equation in the wrong order.

Maths is poorly understood by children in Schools

Maths is mostly poorly understood because pre-school maths, is about practical problem solving, noticing patterns, recognising shapes and learning to count, mentally. While Secondary School Maths instruction becomes abstract. It often focuses on rote learning and solving equations, “think arithmetic and times tables”.

Many students complain that Maths is boring. They do not see the point in learning Algebra, or Geometry or they may not be able to do basic Arithmetic when answers can be found using a calculator or a computer.

Number crunch is all around us today. Being able to work with them quickly and efficiently is a skill. Calculations in Arithmetic is a usual or normal in many professions, especially in carpentry to retail jobs. But Mathematics is much more than Arithmetic. It is identifying the problem and selecting an appropriate approach to solving it, but following the proper order of operations.

Students are marked not only for getting the calculation right but to show how they arrived at their answer. There are children who leap to the correct answer intuitively but cannot analyse how they got them.

The main cause of disillusionment with Maths

Anxiety is the main cause of why students “freeze” in Maths exams. They can have difficulty finding a way to “visualise a problem”, leading to anxiety, sometimes “over anxiety,” thus making careless mistakes due to stress.

Many students have a very short “attention span”. Maths requires concentration. Attention difficulties can affect Maths skills. If a student drifts in and out of attention, they might find it difficult, if not challenging, to follow a teacher’s demonstration. Maintaining focus without distraction is a problem for certain types of learners, hardly explained by teachers.

Thus it is to these students that teachers should devote their attention. Students in turn should find a way to form an interest.

Why is education a mismatch between grades and knowledge?

The skills that students possess with grades and market requirements are at variance. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (3 R’s) are very basic for today’s world. The lack of effective communication, strategic thinking, abstraction and research skills are the main causes of today’s educational mismatch. The educational system is an effective vehicle for producing the skills required to maintain growth in the economy and productivity. There is either a vertical mismatch when the level of education required for the job is more than that necessary. There is a horizontal mismatch when the field of study and the job is at variance. The lack of coherence between required and offered education levels causes the disparity.

Victor Cherubim

Victor Cherubim is a London-based writer and a frequent columnist of the Sri Lanka Guardian

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