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Do students love mathematics? And are they confident of success?

In the first week of teaching I did a quick survey of the students in my first year geometry module. The results surprised me. Some background: I teach a first year module which is not compulsory, however most of the students doing a straight mathematics degree (i.e., not joint with some other subject like chemistry or French) take the module so the results are reasonably representative of this years’ maths intake.

In the second lecture I asked the class to complete the following questionnaire:

Quick Questionnaire

My aim was to discover the students’ motivations for studying mathematics.

In the results below and for the sake of simplicity I eliminated the joint honours students who completed the questionnaire so that we can get a clearer picture of those doing straight mathematics. This gave a total of 106 responses. There was a lot of data so I’ll only include the interesting parts. (Well, no-one wants death by Excel graph.)

The answers for the two questions about their first and second reason for choosing maths were the following:

First reason for choosing mathematics

Second reason for choosing mathematics

1. I love my subject.

2. I want to get a good job.

3. I couldn’t (for whatever reason) do my first choice of subject.

4. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

5. It was the subject I was best at before coming to University.

6. Other (please specify):

So as you can see the winners are I love my subject (48%) followed by It was the subject I was best at before coming to University (38%). This is reassuring, though I do wonder if the first would have a larger share if I had used enjoy instead of love.

The winner of the second reason is I want to get a good job at 42%. (To be honest I thought that this number would a lot higher.) The second most popular was again number 5 with 33%. 

If we add together the responses from first and second results, we get

1. It was the subject I was best at before coming to University (34% of total).

2. I love my subject (33% of total).

3. I want a good job (27% of total).

I’m not sure what significance we can attach to adding these two categories together.

The most interesting results arose in the response to the question about confidence. Here’s the graph: 

Confidence in finishing degree

The key is:
1. very confident
 2. confident
3. somewhat confident
4. not confident


Should we be worried that in Week 1 of Year 1 that the students are mainly ticking confident rather than very confident? Probably not. The students are in a new environment, likely a new city and living away from home for the first time. (Personal aside: My recollection, probably faulty, is that I didn’t feel confident that I had made the right choice about my undergraduate degree until after the end of term 1.)

So I’m not unduly worried. What surprised me was the break down by gender:

Female confidenceMale confidence

The difference is striking. I had expected the male students to be more confident but not by so much. Note that 30% of female students are “somewhat confident” of getting their degree. Yet only 5%  male students think the same. Only 16% of women are very confident compared with 46% of men. These are large differences.

So we see that the men are more confident than the women. Is it misplaced confidence? Actually, looking at the history of our students, it very well might be. Proportionally more men than women get a Third Class degree, an Ordinary degree or a fail. Also, proportionally more women than men get a First or 2:1, though it should be noted that, again proportionally, more men than women get a First.  

The big question is of course “What can we do with this information?” Let’s assume that the results are an accurate reflection of the confidence of the two groups. Do we encourage the women to be more confident? Well, maybe it is their lack of confidence that motivates them to do well. And what if we try to knock the confidence of the men? Well, maybe we’ll just succeed in making the number of thirds and fails even larger.

Whatever the policy outcome, the results are interesting, don’t you think?

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