How students use mathematics in their everyday lives

As part of my PhD thesis (educational computer games and their impact on mathematics anxiety), I was planning the design for a mathematics computer game that would appeal to university students. The aim of the game would be to help university students overcome mathematics anxiety, while of course helping students get through their course involving some level of numeracy.

I had an idea of the mathematics topics the game could cover, this was through talking with MASH (Mathematics and Statistics Help) service at the University of Sheffield about which topics students struggle with the most.

Void of ideas for a story that may engage university students, I decided to undertake some research into student use of mathematics in everyday life. Maybe we could create a relatable story encompassing some of the most frequently occurring activities?

So I set about administering an online questionnaire to students across at the University of Sheffield. The questionnaire asked what kind of mathematics students undertake in their everyday lives outside of their course. 126 students replied, encompassing undergraduates, postgraduates taught, and postgraduate research students. Students were a mixture of full time, part time students and distance learning students.

The results were then coded in NVivo, assigning categories and themes to the participant responses regarding any daily mathematics related activities. The findings were somewhat interesting:

Shopping is a popular place to learn mathematics...

Everyday mathematics - university students

The most popular activity appears to be shopping, which mainly focused on handling cash, comparing prices and calculating discounts. Specific mathematics topics involved in shopping encompassed arithmetic, percentages, and fractions. This was followed by managing personal finance, planning events and cooking. "Splitting the bill" referred to the activity of sharing the total cost of a meal or drinks at for example, a restaurant or coffee shop.

Mathematics used in gaming

Gaming also encouraged mathematics activity, with students referring to titles such as Pokemon, Fire Emblem and Hearthstone, requiring some algebra, addition and other basic arithmetic to gain some advantage in the game. One student noted:

"Lots of quick adding and subtracting HP, Attack and Defense to work out how many hits my units could take."

And the rest...

There were a number of other activities thrown in "the rest" category. These were referenced only once in the data. In there you'll find activities such as listening to music, keeping score at a football game, checking exchange rates, programming and knitting. 2% of activities were classified as "unknown". These were due to responses being incoherent, or the question being misunderstood.

So there you have it, outside of their course, University of Sheffield students (and most likely other universities with similar characteristics) appear to get most of there mathematics lessons from trips to Aldi. Obviously a larger sample size is needed in order to generalise across more universities. There is also still the matter of coming up with a coherent storyline for a game based on this data. Will follow up on this in future posts, and of course, any help is appreciated (comment below)!

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