• Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: Supporting Learners of Statistics: The Difference Between Personal Sense and Cultural Meaning

    Author(s): Sue Gordon
    Institution(s): The University of Sydney
    Session: Research seminar  

    The seminar addresses tensions between students' needs and the requirements of higher education in the context of a service course in statistics. Empirical research findings are interpreted in terms of Leont'ev's (1978) distinction between 'personal sense', which has individual, psychological significance, and his notion of cultural 'meaning' as collectively or socially endorsed (Leont'ev, 1978, p. 169).

    Statistics is a compulsory component of first and second year Psychology at my university. The Mathematics Learning Centre, where I work, offers support for this learning. The second year Psychology class was asked to complete a survey on learning statistics (Gordon, 1998). One question asked in the survey was: Would you study statistics if it were not a requirement of your psychology course? Please give reasons for your answer.

    Seventy three percent of the 249 students surveyed reported that they would not have studied statistics, if there had been a choice. The most frequent responses were that statistics was boring or difficult or they did not enjoy mathematics. On the other hand, those that responded "Yes" to the question gave reasons primarily in practical terms: that statistics is necessary for psychology or generally useful.

    These responses serve as a springboard for examining issues surrounding supporting students in service courses. We draw on Leont'ev's (1978) distinction between meaning as personal or cultural. Personal sense is connected with the reality of the persons own life, motives and goals. Cultural meanings are connected with the reality of the outside world, the life of society. Sometime there is a mismatch between these. The findings suggest that those participants who expressed positive reasons for studying statistics had "internalised" (Vygotsky, 1978) extrinsically endorsed reasons for doing so, for example their teachers' views that statistics is necessary for psychology. Few reported that statistics was personally relevant for their goals, careers or self fulfilment. These two categories distinguish students' perceptions of culturally valued factors from their reflections on self realisation.

    The issue raised by these findings concerns what is valued in higher education. For example, there may be tensions between individual creativity and scientific rigour. Lerman (1996) argues that the valuing of decontextualised, intellectual processes, divorced from personal elements, is oppressive. It is this privileging of abstract thought, such as academic mathematics, that is disempowering for some students. Sierpinska & Lerman (1996) refer to the vested interest mathematicians have in maintaining the status of mathematics in society. This idea was passionately expressed by one statistics student. She wrote:

    "Maths is an exercise in agony, because the people who teach it make one feel as though maths belongs in a higher plane of evolution. Even though the number system is for everyone, and the concepts are there for everyone, the feeling (especially if you are doing pass options) that you do not deserve to know anything runs rampant" (Gordon, 1998).

    Tensions in the system of higher education underpinning these research findings may not usually be articulated, but awareness of these is critical to our understanding of how to support student learning in service courses.


    Gordon, S. (1998). Understanding students learning statistics - an activity theory approach. Unpublished doctoral thesis, The University of Sydney, Sydney.

    Leont'ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, Consciousness, and Personality. (M. J. Hall, Trans.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: PrenticeHall.

    Lerman, S. (1996). Intersubjectivity in mathematics learning: A challenge to the radical constructivist paradigm. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 27(2), 133-150.

    Sierpinska, A. & Lerman, S. (1996). Epistemologies of mathematics and of mathematics education. In A. J. Bishop (Ed.), International Handbook of Mathematics Education, (pp. 827-876). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.