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Blog post Part of special issue: Practitioner research in mathematics education

Fear and loathing in North Yorkshire: Students’ emotions, values and expectancies towards compulsory resits in mathematics

Amber Barnitt, Course Leader at Leeds City College

In this blog post I focus on resit GCSE and Functional Skills mathematics students who are studying vocational courses at a land-based further education (FE) college in the North of England. My students are among those in England aged 16 to 19 who are now obligated to resit mathematics and English until they achieve a ‘pass’ at level 2 or a grade 4 in GCSE (DfE, 2013). The funding the college receives is linked to this compulsory study (EFA, 2014). If the student has a EHCP (education, health and care plan) they must continue until they are 25.

There is much anecdotal evidence from other teachers and my personal experiences which suggest that a substantial number of these students may be disheartened, have negative emotions and motivation and suffer from anxiety about mathematics, and consequently question any value in their study of maths.

My study is significant as there is a general lack of research into FE and a dearth of research into students’ emotions, values and expectancies towards maths resits in FE. These are a not insubstantial number of students, many of whom I see struggling in their maths classrooms and with their formal examinations daily. Insight into their emotions, values and expectancies would be informative as these constructs can be predictors of achievement and could provide opportunities for interventions, which have been shown to be successful in other contexts (Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009). There is a growing body of literature that recognises the importance of emotions, values and expectancies in the context of student motivation and achievement in education. Motivation and its relationship to achievement has been of great interest in a wide range of fields. More recently, researchers have extended this interest and focused on educational contexts, adapting findings in the field of motivation and emotions to explore in more detail what motivates students in varied educational contexts. My study combines two seminal researchers’ questionnaires into one (Eccles & Wigfield, 1995; Pekrun et al., 2011), asking my students to self-report on their emotions and beliefs about the value of the maths they are compelled to study.

‘There is a dearth of research into students’ emotions, values and expectancies towards maths resits in further education.’

My literature review delves into the various complex topics which come together in my study, including motivation, self-concept, maths anxiety, test anxiety, control value and achievement value theories, and current research in FE. Gender weaves its way through all these topics.

My study is exploratory in nature due to the lack of previous research in FE; however, based on previous studies with Control Value Theory (CVT) and Expectancy Value Theory (EVT) it is possible to make tentative predictions, which are explored in the four hypotheses below.

The main aim of this study is to explore whether the gender of the student makes a difference to any emotions, values and expectancies students may have towards their compulsory maths studies (spoiler, it does!). This aim is expressed as the following primary research question: ‘Is there a gender difference in further education students’ emotions, values and expectancies in FE resit maths classes?’ In addition, I posed the following four sub research hypotheses in the context of FE GCSE and FS maths resit classes.

Hypothesis 1. Males will show greater positive control value emotions and lower negative control value emotions towards maths than girls.

The control value theory of achievement emotions provides a framework for analysing the antecedents and effects of emotions experienced in achievement and academic settings. It argues that appraisals of control and values are central to the arousal of achievement emotions, including activity-related emotions such as enjoyment, frustration and boredom experienced at learning, as well as outcome emotions such as joy, hope, pride, anxiety, hopelessness, shame and anger relating to success or failure (Pekrun et al., 2011). My study supports this hypothesis; boys show greater pride for example than girls in my own setting.

Hypothesis 2. There are gender differences in expectancy values for males and females.

According to expectancy–value theory, students’ achievement and achievement-related choices are determined by two factors, which are expectancies for success, and subjective task values. Expectancies refer to how confident an individual is in his or her ability to succeed in a task whereas task values refer to how important, useful or enjoyable the individual perceives the task (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). My study supports this hypothesis; girls are less confident than boys in maths but both girls and boys express the view that maths is important.

Hypothesis 3. There are correlations between Pekrun CVT variables and Eccles EVT variables.

Correlations were found in my study, for example positive control value emotions were correlated with high expectancy for success. These correlations justified my combining the two theories in my study.

Hypothesis 4. There are significant predictors of achievement which could lead to successful interventions.

Statistical tests, including paired t-tests and regression analysis showed significant confirmation of the hypotheses put forward and showed achievement expectancy value and gender can predict pass success and so may be of use in planning interventions. My study agreed in the main with previous studies in different educational contexts and showed that boys have a higher self-regard in maths than girls in my setting; however, girls in the main can have higher achievement if supported with interventions at an early stage. Interventions can include small group study, along with raising the confidence and self-esteem of girls. The lowering of girls’ confidence in maths can start as early as infant school, so early interventions such as ensuring confidence in maths of early years teachers, along with a particular focus on raising girls’ self-esteem may pay dividends further along their educational journey (Eccles & Wigfield, 1995).


Department for Education [DfE]. (2013). 2010 to 2015 government policy: Young people.,and%20curriculum%20for%20young%20people   

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (1995). In the mind of the actor: The structure of adolescents’ achievement task values and expectancy-related beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(3), 215–225.

Education Funding Agency [EFA]. (2014). 16 to 19 funding: Maths and English condition of funding.

Hulleman, C. S. & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(5958), 1410–1412.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Frenzel, A. C., Barchfeld, P., & Perry, R. P. (2011). Measuring emotions in students’ learning and performance: The Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ). Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(1), 36–48.  

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy–value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68–81.