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Developing critical numeracy at the tertiary level

Kemp, Marian (2005) Developing critical numeracy at the tertiary level. Professional Doctorate thesis, Murdoch University.

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Students at university encounter quantitative information in tables and graphs or through prose in textbooks, journals, electronic sources and in lectures. The degree to which students are able to engage with this kind of information and draw their own conclusions, influences the extent to which they need to rely on the interpretation of others. In particular, students who are studying in non-mathematical disciplines often fail to engage seriously with such material for a number of reasons. These may include a lack of confidence in their ability to do mathematics, a lack of mathematical skills required to understand the data, or a lack of an awareness of the importance of being able to read and interpret the data for themselves. In this thesis, the successful choice and use of skills to interpret quantitative information is referred to as numeracy.

The level of numeracy exhibited by a student can vary depending on the social or cultural context, his/her confidence to engage with the quantitative information, the sophistication of the mathematics required, and his/her ability to evaluate the findings. The first part of the thesis is devoted to the conceptualisation of numeracy and its relationship to mathematics.

The empirical study that follows this is focused on an aspect of numeracy of importance to university students: the reading and interpreting of tables of data in a range of non-mathematical contexts. The students who participated in this study were enrolled in degree programs in the social sciences. The study was designed to measure the effectiveness of a one-hour intervention workshop aimed at improving the levels of the students? numeracy. The short length of the intervention was dictated by practical and organisational constraints. This workshop involved reading and interpreting a table of data using strategies based on the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis, 1982).

The SOLO taxonomy was developed mainly as a means of classifying the quality of responses across both arts and science disciplines. The categorisation uses five levels: prestructural, unistructural, multistructural, relational and extended abstract. It can be used as a diagnostic tool at all levels of education as it can be seen as a spiral learning structure repeating itself with increasing levels of abstraction. It can also be used as a teaching tool in feedback to students.

A measuring instrument, also based on the SOLO taxonomy, was designed to gauge the levels of the students' responses to these tasks. Each response was allocated a level that was subsequently coded as a number from zero to seven. Because the responses were in distinct ordered categories, it was possible to analyse the scores using the Rasch Model (Rasch 1960/80) for polytomous responses, placing both the difficulty of the tasks and the ability of the students on an equal interval scale. The Rasch Model was also used to evaluate the measuring instrument itself. Some adjustments were made to the instrument in the light of this analysis. It was found that it is possible to construct an instrument to distinguish between levels of students' written responses for each of the chosen table interpretation tasks.

The workshop was evaluated through a comparison of the levels achieved by individual students before and after the workshop. T-tests for dependent samples indicated a significant improvement (p < 0.01) in student performance.

Item Type: Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Teaching and Learning Centre
Supervisor(s): Lake, David and Andrich, David
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