Not belonging? What makes a functional learner identity in undergraduate mathematics?

Solomon, Y. J. (2007) Not belonging? What makes a functional learner identity in undergraduate mathematics? Studies in Higher Education, 32 (1). pp. 79-96. ISSN 0307-5079

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Analysis of interviews with first-year undergraduate mathematics students shows that 'not belonging' is a prevalent theme in their accounts of the experience of studying mathematics, even though their choice of degree-level study indicates a belief that they are at least at some level 'good at maths'. Instead, they tend to describe themselves as marginalised: they are aligned with mathematical procedures but do not contribute to them. A perception of oneself as a 'legitimate peripheral participant' - as a novice with the potential to make constructive connections in mathematics - is rare. This article examines the potentially conflicting communities of practice within which undergraduate students find themselves, and presents a typology of their related learner identities. The analysis shows that undergraduate functionality in the sense of belief in oneself as a learner is not necessarily associated with the identity of novice/apprentice, as might be predicted by a community of practice model. On the contrary, students who describe identities of heavily alignment can appear unworried by their lack of participation in mathematics, successful as they are in the more dominant local communities of practice. It is argued that these, together with an institutional culture of entrenched beliefs about ability and ownership of knowledge, determine students' experiences and identities in ways which are noticeably gendered. The implications for teaching in mathematics and in higher education more generally are discussed.

Item Type:
Journal Article
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Studies in Higher Education
Additional Information:
Journal version of research first presented at British Educational Research Association conference 2003 and subsequently at the first Socio-Cultural Theory Interest Group Conference, Manchester 2005, this paper addresses issues relating to undergraduate mathematics students' identities and explores their negativity about a subject in which they excel. Based on interview data from a small sample, it develops a particular theoretical focus on gendered identities, contributing to understanding of application of communities of practice theory in the HE context. Has attracted interest at Loughborough/Coventry mathematics CETL, leading to appointment as visiting fellow, and also interest from PREMA EU project (women and mathematics), and appointment as scientific expert and proceedings editor for that project. This paper was reviewed by two expert referees in addition to the journal editorial board. RAE_import_type : Journal article RAE_uoa_type : Education
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Deposited On:
07 Mar 2008 13:16
Last Modified:
18 Sep 2023 00:19