Students' difficulties, conceptions and attitudes towards learning algebra : an intervention study to improve teaching and learning
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The skills necessary to identify and analyse errors and misconceptions made by students are needed by teachers of all levels especially at the lower secondary school level in Malaysia. If students are to be successful in tackling mathematical problems later in their schooling, the one prerequisite is the mastery of basic concepts in algebra. Despite the best efforts of the teachers, students still develop algebra misconceptions. Is it possible to reduce or eliminate these misconceptions? The research involved a survey of 14 year-old students in Form 2 (Grade 8) in the Penampang district of Sabah, East Malaysia. The focus of this study lies in students’ difficulties, conceptions and attitudes towards learning algebra in the framework of conceptual change. A possible way to help students overcome their learning difficulties and misconceptions is by implementing diagnostic teaching involving conflict to foster conceptual change. The study involved evaluating the efficacy of a conceptual change instructional programme involving cognitive conflict in (1) facilitating Form 2 students’ understanding of algebra concepts, and (2) assessing changes in students’ attitudes towards learning mathematics, in a mixed quantitativequalitative research design.A 24-item Algebra Diagnostic Test and a 20-item Test of Mathematics-Related Attitudes (TOMRA) questionnaire were administered as a pretest and a posttest to 39 students in each of a heterogeneous high-achieving class and a below-average achieving class. In addition 9 students were purposefully selected to participate in the interview.The results of the study indicated that students’ difficulties and misconceptions from both classes fell into five broad areas: (1) basic understanding of letters and their place in mathematics, (2) manipulation of these letters or variables, (3) use of rules of manipulation to solve equations, (4) use of knowledge of algebraic structure and syntax to form equations, and (5) generalisation of rule for repetitive patterns or sequences of shapes.The results also showed that there was significant improvement in students’ achievement in mathematics. Further, students’ attitude towards inquiry of mathematics lessons showed significant positive improvement. Enjoyment remained high even though enjoyment of mathematics lesson showed no change. Also, changes in students’ understanding (from unintelligible to intelligible, intelligible to plausible, plausible to fruitful) illustrated the extent of changes in their conceptions.Different pedagogies can affect how conceptual change and challenge of misconceptions occurs. Therefore, knowledge of the origin of different types of misconceptions can be useful in selecting more effective pedagogical techniques for challenging particular misconceptions. Also, for teachers to create an effective learning experience they should be aware of and acknowledge students’ prior knowledge acquired from academic settings and from everyday previous personal experiences. Since all learning involves transfer from prior knowledge and previous experiences, an awareness and understanding of a student’s initial conceptual framework and/or topic can be used to formulate more effective teaching strategies. If this idea is taken a step further, it could be said that, because misconceptions comprise part of a conceptual framework, then understanding origins of misconceptions would further facilitate development of effective teaching strategies.Further research is needed to help teachers to understand how students experience conflict, how students feel when they experience conflict, and how these experiences are related to their final responses because cognitive conflict has both constructive and destructive potential. Thus, by being able to interpret, recognise and manage cognitive conflict, a teacher can then successfully interpret his/her students’ cognitive conflict and be able to make conceptual change more likely or help students to have meaningful learning experiences in secondary school algebra.
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