Post-graduate students' conceptions and perceptions of mathematics : a study of social science students at the Pietermaritzburg Campus, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The study asserts that conceptions and perceptions as meanings that students attach to mathematics either align them or misalign them with the competencies, skills and know-how that qualify one as competent or incompetent in mathematics. The way students perform in mathematics on the other hand also prefigures students’ conceptions and perceptions towards mathematics. The way students perform in mathematics, particularly the poor mathematics performance under investigation and differentiated mathematics outcomes are expressions of the success or failure of the collision between the human habitus and habitus that is valued in mathematics learning. Conceptions and perceptions therefore reflect the socio-cultural dynamics, social relations and processes that inform these habituses. This is crucial for understanding the underlying causes of poor mathematics performance by students as a starting point in improving how they perform in mathematics. The objective of the study is to understand how students’ conceptions and perceptions of mathematics influence how they perform in mathematics and in courses with mathematics as the underlying method as expressed in mathematics outcomes. Twelve University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) post graduate (Masters and PhD) students in the social sciences were interviewed for the study. The study also seeks to establish how students’ conceptions and perceptions prefigure students’ choice of research method for their current research (narratives vs figures) much against this choice being made on the basis of the kind of data. These are investigated within Bourdieu’s theory of social practice and social constructivism. It is salient from the study that all of reality filters through the embodiment of the perceiver or conceiver and that individual students realities are mediated by their social class. Poor mathematics performance is thus an expression of the socio-cultural epistemologies and discourses that characterise various societies, of what mathematics is and how it should be learned. It is the social environment that informs the students’ perceptions and conceptions of mathematics and how they come to know and understand themselves as mathematics learners. Active participation in their own learning however challenges some of the socially constructed meanings around mathematics, thus increasing their agential capacity to acquire the valued habitus in mathematics. The study also concludes that findings on conceptions and perceptions are better off not generalised to wider populations as they tend to be the specific groups being investigated.
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