# How do you solve the problem of failures in mathematics?

According to media reports, every year about 50% of the student candidates at the GCE Ordinary Level examination come down in mathematics in Sri Lanka. This is a worrying situation as mathematics plays a major role in developing logical, critical and creative thinking of an individual and the application of mathematics is seen in almost all spheres of activity in the modern world. Therefore, it is important to find out why such a situation has occurred and how remedial measures can be taken.

Many students find mathematics difficult because of its abstract nature. In almost all other subjects other than languages, they are able to see for themselves what the facts are either through observation or experimentation. But, in mathematics there is not much to see or do as mostly only the mental faculties are used to study numbers, shapes or patterns. As mathematics is isolated in this sense, special training has to be provided to the students to deal with the abstraction required. Also, many of the students do not know how to study for a mathematics examination. In almost all other subjects, they can revise going through the notes or the text book. In mathematics just going through notes will not help as practice is needed with the problem solving process. Therefore, the revision techniques for examination preparation is different in mathematics and students have to be made aware of this situation.

The third and the most important reason may be that many students do not find mathematics interesting, again mainly due to its abstraction, symbolic notation and generalization. This is where the teacher’s role becomes so very important. Students have so many questions about what they are learning specially in mathematics as they are learning about abstract concepts. They will want to know why they are learning what they are being taught and “You have to know this as it will be on the test” is not an acceptable reply.

In the classrooms, there has to be an atmosphere where students can enjoy mathematics. In the recent times, the Mathematics Unit of the Ministry of Education has been promoting the formation of mathematical laboratories, which I thought was a step in the right direction. The primary objective of a maths lab is to create a location consisting of mathematical apparatus and visual aids to enable students to involve themselves in the learning process, by attempting to bridge the gap between the real world and the abstract world. It provides opportunities for students to develop inquiry based learning in a mathematical atmosphere, thereby enhancing their interest in the subject and confidence to face the challenges that it offers.

The success of a mathematics laboratory depends on the degree of involvement of its users. In addition to being a location for better understanding of mathematical concepts through visualization and experimentation, it can also create a huge interest in the subject among the student population. It is suggested that a committee be formed to run the affairs of the maths lab, consisting of teachers, students and even parents. Contests such as puzzle solving, ingenious model making and paper folding activities could be organized to enhance interest and imaginative power. In short, mathematics learning could be made fun and productive through the effective use of a mathematics laboratory.

The teacher’s role is pivotal not only in creating an interest in the subject but also enhancing awareness of the importance of mathematics in the modern world where technology plays a big part. It is important that teachers go through not only the content but also the historical perspective and discuss the applicability of the taught material. Many students are put off by the large number of symbols used in mathematics and it should be explained to them through demonstrations how data can be summarized with the use of symbols and that it is much easier to analyse summarized data than otherwise. As S. Gudder aptly quoted “The essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple.” The Ministry of Education can play a crucial role in organising regular seminars for mathematics teachers, in different categories appropriate to their level of grasp, to upgrade their knowledge on mathematical content and teaching strategies.

I also feel that the time has come to do away with the memorizing of formulae other than the basic ones. Why do you have to remember the formula to find the volume of a sphere? If the need arises, it can be checked either from a text book or a website or a published formulae sheet. What is important is the application of the formula. Further the time is ripe to consider the introduction of the use of a calculator at a stipulated grade. Sometimes, students spend far too much time on calculations rather than the more important process.

(The writer formed Sri Lanka’s first mathematics laboratory in 1975 at St. Anthony’s College, Kandy. He is now at the Overseas School of Colombo having returned from the United World College of Hong Kong).