It's not only maths students who need a solid grasp of statistics

Students are arriving at university with unrealistic expectations of the mathematical demands of their subject, finds Paul Glaister

January 19, 2016
Maths lecture
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Many students begin higher education without the mathematical knowledge required to succeed and achieve their potential, and recent reports have demonstrated how students in the UK lag behind their peers in other countries when it comes to participation in mathematics after the age of 16. As a consequence, many are not well-prepared for the demands of their university courses.

For example: a report from the Higher Education Academy, Mathematical Transitions: a Report on the Mathematical and Statistical Needs of Students Undertaking Undergraduate Studies in Various Disciplines, studied the mathematical needs of students in seven disciplines: business and management, chemistry, computing, economics, geography, sociology and psychology. It found that all the disciplines require maths and/or statistics to some extent.  

However, many students arrive at university with unrealistic expectations of the mathematical and statistical demands of their subjects and that lack of confidence and anxiety about maths/statistics is a problem for many students, the report said. 

With the HEA report highlighting the gaps in the mathematical knowledge of new undergraduates, the recent British Academy Count us In report called for the UK to improve its performance in developing stronger quantitative skills at all levels. 

The problem of transition to mathematical study at university is compounded by the fact that many students have not studied maths since GCSE, resulting in a lack of fluency and confidence in using and applying mathematics.

A 2010 Nuffield report, Is the UK an Outlier? An International Comparison of Upper Secondary Mathematics Education, found that in a survey of 24 countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland had the lowest levels of participation in maths to age 18, with fewer than 20 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in England studying the subject.

While the number of students taking A and AS level in maths has grown healthily in recent years, many students still encounter no maths after GCSE. Their understanding, fluency and confidence are inevitably weakened, and they are missing out on the maths that would help them with their studies in higher education.

Core Maths qualifications are designed to help these students, and are aimed at 16 to 18-year-olds who have passed GCSE maths at grade C or above but who are not taking A or AS-level maths.

The idea is to help students retain, deepen and extend their mathematical skills and understanding through the use of meaningful and relevant problems, preparing them for university, but also for employment and life. The government hopes that by 2020, the vast majority of students will continue to study some form of maths as part of their post-16 education. 

As the number of students taking Core Maths grows steadily over the next few years, universities will be able to admit students who will have the skills and knowledge that will enable them to achieve their full potential.

At present, many of these students experience a two-year maths gap. This has a knock-on effect for provision of student support in universities and graduate employability. Core Maths will, I believe, help to fill this gap.

Paul Glaister is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Reading. He is currently giving institution-wide briefings on Core Maths to all universities. You can contact him here.

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Reader's comments (3)

Research has been recently completed by Cambridge Assessment on this topic through surveying thousands of current undergraduates of STEMM and Social Science subjects, and interviewing lecturers. The results will be published over the coming months. More here:
This highlights the need for L3 Core Maths qualifications to be offered much more widely in sixth forms and FE colleges. A2 maths is not appropriate for some students - the practical, applied approach of Core Maths should give greater accessibility to L3 maths for students not pursuing the A'level pathway post-16.
Finally we have a post 16 qualification that spans the gap between having to redo your GCSE and A level maths. Core maths is key to enabling all students to have the opportunity to extend their mathematical development up to the age of 18. More over it is designed to really enable the students to reason and problem solve as well as supporting the understanding of key mathematical knowledge in other subject areas. I teach the qualification and it is one of the most significant developments that I have come across in the last 30 years. I have students now who had just scrapped a grade C in foundation level maths who are now confident in handling information (data) in a variety of contexts. This has had a direct benefit to their other studies and more importantly their self confidence. For students not studying A level maths the key question is not why you would take the qualification but why wouldn't you! Colin Prestwich Yorkshire Ridings Maths Hub Lead and Exec. Head of Maths