Schoolchildren can learn complex subjects on their own

August 15, 2011

Educational researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have found that schoolchildren can independently develop strategies for solving complex mathematical tasks, with weaker students proving just as capable as their stronger classmates.

Researchers in mathematics education worked with approximately 1600 8th grade high-school students in various German states. Following an introduction to the general topic by their teachers, the school children were given a workbook of geometric tasks that they had to solve on paper and using a computer over four school periods. Calculating the surface area of Gran Canaria was one of the real-world, free-form assignments the students had to tackle. The workbook material included explanations and examples of various problem-solving approaches. The teachers took a back seat during the session but were on hand to answer questions from the children, who worked in pairs.

After testing the students’ skills before and after the session, the researchers recorded a significant improvement in their capabilities. The students learned to apply mathematics more effectively, the researchers said. The students were also able to call on these skills in a further test three months later.

“We expected students who were weaker at math to benefit more from a greater degree of guidance through the module,” said professor Kristina Reiss.  ”But we didn’t see a significant difference between these and stronger students.”

The researchers also found that there were also no differences between boys and girls. “We now know that students — also those who are weaker in math — have the skills to master even very complex subject matters at their own pace,” said Reiss.