You are on page 1of 8

Assessing mathematical problem solving abilities of

Malaysian secondary students

Lee Siew-Eng
University of Malaya
Acquisition of problem solving skills is regarded as one of the important
objectives of the Malaysian school mathematics curriculum. It is assumed that
the acquisition would enhance students higher order thinking skills. Recent
reforms in the Malaysian school mathematics curriculum have emphasized the
incorporation of problem solving skills in mathematics instructions and
mathematics activities in the classroom. Nevertheless, how do teachers assess
the problem solving skills of the students? The task is not easy and teachers are
not given much information along this line. This paper intends to share the
experience of implementing mathematical task in upper secondary schools and
how the problem solving abilities of these students are assessed.
Keywords: Alternative assessment, project work, rubric scoring scheme

Problem solving in Malaysian school curriculum

Problem solving in mathematics was emphasized in the 70s in the west with particular
reference to Polyas heuristic model of problem solving. Its value and importance were
witnessed by its inclusion in the radical reforms of Malaysian school mathematics
curriculum under the Integrated Primary School Curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu
Sekolah Rendah KBSR) and the Integrated Secondary School Curriculum (Kurikulum
Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah KBSM) in the year 1983 and 1989 respectively (Asiah bt.
Abu Samah, 1982; Ministry of Education (MOE), 1981; 1989; 1994). It is believed that
the acquisition of mathematical knowledge and problem solving will develop students
higher order thinking skills and decision making which they can apply in their future
encounters (MOE, 2002). In fact, problem solving is endorsed as a standard in the school
mathematics curriculum by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM,
1989; 2000). Numerous research studies in the past decades have studied ways to
enhance students problem solving skills (for examples Cai, 1994; Garofalo & Lester,
1985; Krulik & Rudnick, 1989; Lawson & Chinnappan; 2000; Lester, 1994; Schoenfeld,
1979). In Malaysia, Lee (2001) has reviewed studies in mathematics education and noted
the increasing interest in the area of problem solving.
Besides Mathematics which is a compulsory subject for all students in school, an elective
subject Additional Mathematics (Matematik Tambahan) is designed for those upper
secondary students who intend to pursue higher level mathematics later in the college or
university. Again, the Additional Mathematics curriculum emphasizes on the acquisition

of problem solving skills (MOE, 2000; 2003). The acquisition of these problem solving
heuristics is assumed to assist the students to think critically and analytically, and hence
enhancing the understanding of concepts and skills in other topics of mathematics. These
higher order thinking skills are essential and provide a firm foundation that will later help
the students to pursue higher levels of mathematics.
Enhancing problem solving abilities
To develop the problem solving skills, it is the first time project work is introduced to
Form Four and Form Five students for the Additional Mathematics curriculum (MOE,
2003). Students are expected to design, conduct and report a mathematics project. The
process of completing the project involves a major component of problem solving skills
(pg. 40 45).
Purpose of Project Work
It is envisaged that the Project Work would enable students to:
1) Apply mathematical concepts and skills to solving problems effectively;
2) Enhance thinking skills and communicating with proper and accurate language;
3) Inculcate:
a) Intrinsic values such as tidiness, systematic, precise and others;
b) Cooperation and tolerance;
c) Always trying and not giving up easily;
4) Make learning more interesting, challenging, useful and meaningful.
When the task is given, the students need to explore and search their mathematical ideas,
concepts and knowledge, and apply various problem solving strategies in solving
problem. Group discussion among their classmates and later writing the report enhance
students thinking skills and communicate mathematically. Specifically, they need to
perform the following:
1) Assess the given task/problem;
2) Apply the problem solving heuristic:
i) Use at least two methods to solve the problem;
ii) Make conjectures and prove them;
iii) Check solution, make conclusions and make further explorations;
iv) State the findings clearly.
3) Communicate clearly and correctly in writing;
4) Present a complete report which is complete, neat and creative.
(refer Project work, 2004)

The project
The Curriculum Development Centre will send the tasks of the project work together
with the rubric to all the schools in the country, one for Form Four and another one for
Form Five (An example of Project work for 2004 is given in Appendix B).
Assessing problem solving abilities
To assess the problem solving abilities, we cannot just look at the final written report.
The process of getting the work done is important. How do we assess the problem solving
process? A rubric scoring scheme or referred as rubric (Appendix A) is provided for all
Additional Mathematics teachers. The rubric provides a systematic way to assess all the
processes involved in getting the work done. Four aspects are identified: the presentation
of the report, assessing the problem/task, applying the problem solving heuristics, and
making decisions. Detailed descriptions of different levels of scoring under each aspect
are provided for teachers to assess the report. Therefore teachers are able to assess the
problem solving abilities of the student.
Views of teachers and students
Ten teachers and ten students were interviewed verbally to gather information regarding
the project work.
Teachers who have conducted the project work for Form Four and Form Five students
gave their views verbally regarding the project work. Generally, the teachers welcome
the implementation of the project work in Additional Mathematics. They are of the
opinion that the project work is useful and students will learn and benefit in many ways.
Students could realize the application of mathematical concepts in solving the task. As
the students work in groups, they learn about team work indirectly. They need to search
for materials, get together for discussion, listen to others and put forward their views. All
these provide good training for the students.
Not many teachers are aware of the alternative assessment available besides marking the
students exercise. This is the first time they received ideas of rubric scoring scheme to
assess problem solving skills of the students.
However, teachers have some reservation on the project. They commented that a lot of
time is used up to provide guidance to the students. All students must complete the
project and submit their reports. Usually, good students are capable of completing the
task with little assistance from the teacher. The average and weak classes need more time
and a lot of guidance. In addition, many students in these weak students are not
interested in the project and commented its a waste of time. Also based on the aims of

project work, teachers commented that they have to guide weak students till they solve
the task given and make a report. In this context, noone will fail to get the work done.
Teachers have to grade the work according to the rubric scoring scheme which is time
consuming. Moreover, these marks are not included in students final assessment. Later,
teachers have to prepare reports to the school and the education department. In view of
this, they suggested unanimously that the marks awarded to the project work should be
included in the final public examination which all students will take at the end of their
secondary school education.
Ten students of Form Five and Form Six who had completed the project work in the
previous year(s) admitted that they did not like the project work of Additional
Mathematics when they were in Form Four and Form Five. They did not see the
relevance of doing project work in mathematics class. The most difficult part of the
work was writing the report. They preferred to use the time to solve more problems in
the textbooks. However, when they move on to higher form, they are of the opinion that
the project is actually good and had helped them to learn how to use mathematics and
search for strategies to solve a problem.
The extent of the intended curriculum of making students competent in problem solving
and posses higher order thinking skills is always the concern of educators in the country
(Noor Azlan Ahmad Zanzali & Lui, 2000). Introducing project work in mathematics
together using Rubric scoring scheme to assess students problem solving abilities serves
an impetus to enhance students problem solving skills. Teachers welcome the ideas,
except that too many classes and handling many students is a time consuming task.
Perhaps the school, curriculum planner and the teachers can work out some formulae so
that the project work in Additional Mathematics can be implemented more effectively.
Cai, J. (1994). A protocol-analytic study of metacognition in mathematical problem
solving. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 6(2), 166-183.
Asiah bt. Abu Samah. (1982). Perkembangan kurikulum matematik sekolah di Malaysia
sejak zaman penjajah. Kertas kerja yang dibentangkan di Simposium Kebangsaan
Matematik, Universiti Kebangsaan Malysia, 12 14 Ogos, Kuala Lumpur.
Curriculum Development Centre, Malaysia. (2004). Rubrik kerja projek Matematik
Tambahan. KL: Ministry of Education.

Garofalo, J., & Lester, F. (1985). Metacognition, cognitive monitoring, and mathematical
performance. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 16,163-176.
Krulik, S. & Rudnick, J. A. (1989). Problem solving: A handbook for senior high
teacher. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.
Lee, S. E. (2001). Studies on problem solving in school mathematics in Malaysia.
In E. Pehkonen (Ed.), Problem solving around the world. Faculty of
Education Report Series C:14. University of Turku.
Lester, F. K. Jr. (1994). Musing about mathematical problem-solving research: 19701994. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 25(6), 660-675.
Lawson, M. J., & Chinnappan, M. (2000). Knowledge connectedness in geometry
problem solving. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 31(1), 26-43.
Ministry of Education. (1981). Huraian sukatan pelajaran matematik: sekolah rendah.
KL: Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum.
__________________ (1988). Huraian sukatan pelajaran matematik: sekolah menegah.
KL: Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum.
__________________ (1989). Huraian sukatan pelajaran matematik tambahan. KL:
Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum.
_________________ (1994). Huraian sukatan pelajaran matematik: sekolah rendah.
KL: Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum.
_________________ (2000). Huraian sukatan pelajaran matematik tambahan. KL: Pusat
Perkembangan Kurikulum.
_________________ (2003). Huraian sukatan pelajaran matematik tambahan. KL: Pusat
Perkembangan Kurikulum.
Noor Azlan Ahmad Zanzali, & Lui, L. N. (2000). Evaluating the levels of problem
solving abilities in mathematics. In R, Alan (ed.). Proceedings of the International
Conference on Mathematics Education into the 21st Century: Mathematics for living,
Nov. 18 23, 2000. Amman, Jordan.
Available: (5/5/2002)
Schoenfeld, A. H. (1979). Explicit heuristic training as a variable in problem solving
performance. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education,10, 173-187.

Appendix A
Scoring rubric for Project Work in Additional Mathematics
A. Presentation of Report
1. Physical aspect (5%)

2. Title (1%)

3. Introduction (5%)

4. Discussion (7%)

Content page available.

Systematic presentation.
Neat presentation.
Creative in the report.
Appropriate title is written.
No title.
Describe introduction clearly and related to the task,
including the history (if necessary), noble values and
esthetic values.
Describe the introduction not so clearly.
Did not have introduction.
Discuss the findings clearly.
Discuss the findings.
Did not discuss the findings.
Relate the problem with other situation.
Did not relate problem with other situation.


B. Assessing the problem or the given task

1. Identify information (10%)

Identify the given information, required product and

present them in mathematical statements.
Identify the given information and the required product.
Identify part of the information and the required product.
Did not identify any information.

8 - 10

Select at least two correct strategies.

Select only one correct strategy.
Select a unsuitable strategy
Make conjectures and support these conjectures.
Make conjectures only
Did not make conjecture at all.
Apply at least to two selected strategies, solve the
problem with orderly and clear steps.
Apply only one strategy and solve the problem the
problem with orderly and clear steps.
Apply strategy and solve the problem without orderly
steps or wrongly.
Did not apply any strategy.
Communicate clearly in the use of appropriate and correct
language in all the steps of solutions (including
graphs/tables/diagrams if necessary).
Did not communicate clearly in the use of appropriate and
correct language in all the steps of solutions (including
graphs/tables/diagrams if necessary).
Show no communication.
Answer all questions accurately.
Answer at least one question accurately.
All answers are wrong.

20 25


C. Appling problem solving heuristic

1. Strategies (47%)

2. Findings (10%)

10 19
8 12

D. Making conclusion
1. Check solution, make conclusion and
further exploration. (15%)

Check solutions are correct (including the two

implemented strategies)
Make conclusion.
Make further exploration
Did not make any of the above.


Total score

Source: Curriculum Development Centre, Malaysia. (2004). Rubrik kerja projek Matematik Tambahan. KL:
Ministry of Education.
[Translation: Rubric for project work of Additional Mathematics]

Appendix B