Over the course of 2017 University of Auckland doctoral candidate Aaron Peeters (pictured) studied three mathematics classes at Manurewa High School, where he also works as the head of the school’s Modern Learning Environment (a space where students have choice and flexibility in pursuing their own projects).

Working with both teachers and students, he focused on the issue of students who lack confidence and are avoiding participating in learning tasks, resulting in them being less likely to learn; further eroding their confidence in a self-reinforcing cycle. Teachers also played a part in the situation, often being unwilling to call on specific students for fear of triggering their defensive strategies and creating long, uncomfortable silences.

To understand this issue from both students’ and teachers’ points of view, he used a “theory of action” process to break down the students’ behaviour and make sense of why so many were reticent to ask for help.

“By understanding things from the point of view of the students and teachers’ we can understand why they prefer those actions to alternatives. These insights can provide powerful opportunities for intervention,” says Peeters.

His research revealed four common reasons behind why students avoid participating or asking questions when they didn’t understand something.

  1. Students saw making mistakes as risky, not wanting others to “think they’re dumb” and question whether they should be in the class.
  2. They were concerned they were the only one who didn’t understand. This was exacerbated by teaching practices that required only voluntary participation in class discussions, so only confident students’ voices were heard.
  3. They were worried the teacher would be frustrated with them. This seemed to be a general belief even when the teacher in question said they had never expressed frustration with their students.
  4. They weren’t convinced asking for help would actually help, as they were worried that teachers would merely repeat what they’d just said or redirect them to their notes.

“What’s worse is that students who start the year willing to ask questions and try things became less willing to do so over time. One boy who had started the year asking heaps of questions and taking risks explained how he wanted to do better at maths this year and he believed that other students were not getting it either, but that they were too embarrassed to say so.”

“Unfortunately, by the end of the year, he was not so sure about this belief and had become risk-averse. As he described it, given that nobody ever asked any questions throughout the year he did not want to ‘be the only one’.”

With a better understanding of students’ and teachers’ motivations, Peeters trialled several improvement strategies. All students were given handheld whiteboards that they could write answers and questions on then hold up at the same time, reducing the focus on individual students by having the whole-class respond to questions.

This changed mistakes from being “something dumb people do” into bring a regular part of the learning process, enabling teachers to be aware of which students needed help. Once mistakes were identified, teachers would explore the chain of logic that lead to the incorrect answer, helping both the individual student and the rest of the class to better understand the lesson.

“Teachers, out of a need for speed and efficiency, rarely take the time to unpack their students’ mistakes and see what led to that mistake, but by doing so a mistake can actually become a learning opportunity.”

The trial of these techniques provided encouraging results, Peeters says, as well as lots of data to consider when combining the techniques into a more systematic improvement package, which he intends to attempt to implement next year.

“These findings provide insight into ways to change patterns of avoidance, and secondly they bring to light factors which have not been recognised by survey or experimental methods. The efficacy of the help, the sense of belonging and the negative reaction of the teacher have not been linked to problems of student avoidance.”

“The techniques we implemented this year were somewhat ad-hoc in response to the challenges as we discovered them, but the result has been enough information to go back again next year in a more focused way.”


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