Educational ambitions and attitudes of students towards STEM

Educational ambitions and attitudes of students towards STEM

Compared to their female peers, the Australian 8th grade boys liked math and science more. © / Shutterstock

While Australia’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job growth rate is almost double that of any other job, hiring in these areas is more difficult than other jobs due to lack of technical skills or qualifications as the main reason (DESE , 2020).

Indeed, there are ongoing concerns both internationally and in Australia about declining STEM enrollments and a tightening pipeline for STEM occupations. An important factor in improving STEM enrollments is developing a positive attitude towards math and science. It has been shown that positive attitudes are important not only for performance, but also for students’ decision to continue studying these subjects (Wang & Degol, 2013).

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019 examined students’ general attitudes toward math and science, including their academic confidence and the appreciation students place in math and science as an opportunity to improve their lives.

Responses from 14,950 Australian students from 571 Australian schools showed that students who said they liked math or science were confident learning and appreciating them generally scored higher on average on ratings than students who didn’t.

Attitudes to mathematics and natural sciences

Australian students showed quite negative attitudes towards math. Half of Australian 8th grade students said they didn’t enjoy studying math, compared with 35 percent of Singapore students (Singapore was selected as the comparison country because they had the best results in both math and science in both grades ) and 41 percent of students are international students.

Attitudes towards science were significantly less negative, but 28 percent of Australian students said they did not enjoy studying science, compared with 14 percent of Singapore students and 20 percent of international students.

Only 14 percent of Australian 8th grade students said they were very confident about math and 42 percent said they were more confident about math, which is similar to the international average and Singapore’s.

In science, 16 percent of Australian 8th grade students said they were very confident, compared with 23 percent of international students and 17 percent of Singaporean students. Thirty-nine percent of 8th grade students were reasonably confident on average in science in Australia and Singapore and internationally.

More than a third of Australian 8th grade students (38 percent) said they loved math, compared with 37 percent of international students and 34 percent of Singaporean students.

In science, attitudes among Australian students were well below the international average. Only 28 percent of Australian 8th grade students said they value science highly, compared with 36 percent the international average and 42 percent of Singapore students.

Compared to their female peers, Australian 8th grade students liked math and science more, were more confident and valued more in studying these subjects. However, women who had the same level of confidence, liking, or appreciation for math or science as men performed at the same level or better than their male peers.

The differences between favored and disadvantaged students were quite large. Disadvantaged students were less likely to like math and science, were less confident, and valued math and science less than their favored classmates. It is worrying that – in contrast to the performance parity between men and women – the average performance in mathematics or science among disadvantaged students was considerably lower than among disadvantaged students, regardless of whether they liked a subject or not, were self-confident or not, or cherished it or not.

Educational ambitions

TIMSS also urged 8th grade students to record the highest level of education they thought they would achieve. About half (53 percent) of Australian students expect a university degree, with 23 percent expecting a postgraduate degree and 30 percent expecting a bachelor’s degree as the highest degree.

Female students were more likely to expect an undergraduate degree as the highest level of education, while male students were more likely to expect a non-university tertiary degree or just a secondary degree. This largely reflects the reality of post-school education – apprenticeships are still predominantly seen as a career path for men rather than women.

More worrying are the striking differences in the aspirations of favored and disadvantaged students.

Around three quarters (77 percent) of students from disadvantaged backgrounds assume that they will attend university, compared with one fifth (20 percent) of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The proportion of disadvantaged students who expect a bachelor’s degree as the highest level of education has fallen sharply since TIMSS 2015 from 16 percent to 8 percent.

In addition, a growing number of disadvantaged students – 62 percent in TIMSS 2019 versus 52 percent in TIMSS 2015 – did not expect formal education beyond secondary education. The proportion of students from privileged backgrounds who only want to complete secondary school, on the other hand, has remained relatively stable at 10 percent.

In part, this probably reflects in part the fact that disadvantaged students in Australia have lower levels of achievement and attitudes towards math and science. In TIMSS 2019, for example, only 17 percent of disadvantaged students achieved the high or advanced benchmarks, compared to 51 percent of students from privileged backgrounds. In PISA, disadvantaged students by the age of 15 are on average three years behind their disadvantaged classmates.

A number of additional barriers (see, for example, Tomaszewski et al., 2017) have resulted in disadvantaged students having less positive views about higher education and more likely than their beneficiary peers to want (or need to) earn an income immediately upon graduation from high school.

They are also more likely to be decoupled from the education system due to the perceived poor learning climate, which can have a profound impact on aspirations (Ainley & Ainley, 2011).


Ainley, M. & Ainley, J. (2011). Student Engagement In Science In Early Adolescence: The Contribution of Joy to Students’ Sustained Interest in Science Learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36 (1): 4-12.

Ministry of Education, Skills and Employment (2020).

Thomson, S., Wernert, N., Buckley, S., Rodrigues, S., O’Grady, E., Schmid, M. (2021). TIMSS 2019 Australia. Volume II: School and classroom contexts for learning. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Tomaszewski, W., Perales, F. & Xiang, N. (2017). School experiences, career guidance and university involvement of youth from three stock groups in Australia. National Center for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Perth: Curtin University. Available

Wang, MT. & Degol, J. (2013). Motivation paths for choosing a STEM career: Use of the expectation-value perspective to understand individual and gender-specific differences in STEM areas. Development review, 33 (4), 304-340.

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