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

Solomon, Yvette (2007) Not belonging? What makes a functional learner identity in undergraduate mathematics? Studies in higher education, 32 (1). pp. 79-96. ISSN 1470-174X

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Abstract

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.

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