Public understanding of the mathematical aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic

Public understanding of the mathematical aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic

Author: Ayelet Baram-Tsabari – Technion Institute of Technology, Israel


  • Einat Heyd-Metzuyanim – Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, Technion, Israel
  • Aviv J. Sharon – Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, Technion, Israel

As the COVID-19 pandemic became a top concern worldwide, media coverage became full of information that demands mathematical literacy, or numeracy, to interpret. Rarely have graphs, growth factors, or exponential growth indicators been so central in daily mainstream news outlets and over such a long period. In this study we examine the public’s understanding of mathematical notions that are basic for understanding the pandemic and predicting its spread. In addition, we wish to examine relations between people’s mathematical background, their attitudes towards mathematics and their understanding of the mathematics involved in the COVID-19 pandemic.

We conducted a cross-sectional survey with three components: (1) demographic information, including gender, age, education, occupation and the highest level of mathematics education; (2) attitudes towards mathematics; (3) Mathematics knowledge relevant to the pandemic, including: (3a) de-contextualized mathematics knowledge, such as identifying series of numbers that show linear growth vs. exponential growth, understanding the meanings of exponents etc., and (3b) contextualized mathematical knowledge, including the ability to correctly interpret authentic numbers and graphs of the pandemic used in the mainstream media and social media. The survey was distributed to a representative sample of the Jewish Israeli population (N=439).

Results indicate that the participants’ level of highschool mathematics predicted their success in the mathematical tasks. However, even those that had studied at the highest level did not always interpret correctly the mathematical information presented in the media. Moreover, the strongest predictor for understanding the mathematics in the media was found to be participants’ attitudes towards mathematics, even more than the mathematical knowledge gained in school. These results show that school mathematics, especially in its high levels, may prepare adults to understand critical information important for their wellbeing, such as at a time of a global pandemic. However, mathematical identity may significantly hinder adults’ engagement with such information.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time