Fundamental problems

Many science undergraduates struggle to write well or solve simple maths problems. We fail them if we do not bring their basic skills up to scratch, argues Harriet Jones

July 2, 2009

It is no secret that many undergraduates enter university lacking some basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Universities across the country are sharing ideas on how to tackle the deficit. Even A-level courses are being rewritten to try to address the problem.

A few years ago I was asked to teach maths to first-year biology undergraduates. To assess the extent of the problem, I gave students a maths exam when they arrived. It was really just a test of basic numeracy. I put a few extremely simple questions at the beginning to help the students feel confident that they could start the test well.

I was extremely surprised to find that 10 per cent of students could not determine the area of a square with sides of 2cm. A similar proportion could not calculate 50 per cent of 40. Year on year, a similar proportion of students get the same simple questions wrong. It would be naive to believe that this happens only at the university where I teach. These students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and arrive with average ABB entrance grades.

When asked why they thought they might be getting such basic questions wrong, some students suggested that, during their gap years, they had forgotten how to do some calculations. But the questions test not formulae you have to remember - they test basic skills that should be with you for life. A more interesting suggestion came from a student who said that the basic skills had been covered in primary school but were not reinforced through secondary school, where more applied maths was taught.

I followed this up by going into a local primary school, where I gave the first two parts of the test to a top maths set of Year 6 pupils (aged 10-11). They all achieved full marks on the first section and got most of the second section right, where there were questions such as "express 3/5 as a percentage" and "rearrange C=2pr to make r the subject". This showed me that the basic skills I was asking for had been taught by the end of their primary education.

I then went into a number of local secondary schools and asked science teachers how they rated the pre-16 school curriculum in delivering pupils who could handle mathematical problems; only 22 per cent considered the curriculum "good" in this respect. I asked how they rated the mathematical ability of pre-16 pupils who they expected to go on to study science at A level; 86 per cent judged it to be "adequate" or "poor". I also asked how they rated the A2/AS science curriculum in delivering pupils who would be able to handle mathematical problems at degree level; only 13 per cent said it was "good", the rest thought it "adequate" or "poor". This told me that, although some teachers had confidence in the curriculum they were teaching, there were many who did not.

Many teachers blamed the overuse of calculators in schools. I was doing some outreach work in a number of secondary schools last year with Year 8 pupils (aged 12-13) and it involved some basic calculations. The pupils did really well tackling the sums. However, in all but one school the teacher started handing out calculators; after the first school we got wise to this and followed the teacher, collecting them. The pupils were perfectly capable, although not always willing, to do the sums themselves. It was the teachers who reached for the calculators.

It should be mentioned that there are some really good teachers in schools working hard to get their pupils to do maths without calculators. I watched a lower-stream Year 8 class in one school working down a column of numbers, taking one from another where each was to two decimal places; they were doing this without calculators.

I spoke to a colleague from another university recently who said her students couldn't multiply by 10 without reaching for a calculator. This is a problem many at university level will recognise.

Pupils and students alike need to feel confident in the maths they are doing, and this seems to depend on the quality of the teaching they receive. Of the students who got full marks in the first part of their maths test when they arrived at university, 47 per cent said they had little or no confidence. This lack of confidence in maths is a general problem that needs tackling early on, perhaps as early as the pre-school stage. It is difficult to reverse once they reach university, but we must believe that some improvement is possible.

The lack of basic maths skills among almost all university undergraduates is reflected in the large number of web-based maths tutorials now available. However, I believe personal contact is crucial. I find that by providing small-group teaching, and showing how maths applies to the subject the students have opted to study, those who arrive with little or no confidence in maths begin to learn to tackle maths problems. Our institution also provides one-to-one teaching for students who really struggle, with the primary aim of building confidence. But this should not be necessary if the training our children receive at primary school were adequately reinforced at secondary school.

And now to literacy. Like maths, the low level of literacy among undergraduates is a problem recognised across universities, where a variety of skills courses incorporate lessons on how to write well and how to structure extended pieces of writing. In contrast to their opinion of their maths skills, students rarely lack confidence in their writing, but many lack ability. I regularly read work from undergraduates when they first arrive that shows that they don't understand where to use full stops.

It is very hard to communicate with students who haven't been taught the language of grammar. I have to explain what is meant by writing in the third person. One student had to be shown how to write in the past tense. "So you just add 'ed'," he hazarded. I had to explain that it wasn't quite that straightforward.

When I started teaching writing skills, I expected students to want to improve their written communication. I gave out a questionnaire asking them to rate their writing ability on a scale of 1 to 10. A surprising number scored themselves as 9 or 10. In the years I have been teaching, there have only occasionally been students who write impressively well.

In surveys of undergraduates at a number of universities, responses indicate that corrections to spelling and grammar are not valued by students. Perhaps this comes from their earlier educational experiences; in schools I have seen a lack of desire to correct pupils' spelling and grammatical mistakes. I asked a teacher about this practice and she said that she avoided making too many corrections on one page. But how are pupils supposed to learn what is right and wrong if mistakes are left uncorrected? And doesn't this just instil in them the idea that they needn't worry about technical aspects of writing?

As with maths, students have learnt the basic literacy skills at primary school. They are taught basic grammar and how to structure ideas into an extended piece of writing. I believe one of the biggest problems with literacy is that pupils spend more time perfecting their texting and emailing skills than they do writing grammatically correct pieces of literature.

It is important to get across to undergraduates that good writing matters, because there is no point in having a great scientific idea if you can't write it down in a way that communicates it to a wide audience. I have introduced a writing exercise called "The Science Log" (see the Higher Education Academy's Centre for Bioscience Bulletin, No 26, Spring 2009), which gets undergraduates writing about science from the day they start university. This is combined with regular instruction and exercises on writing technique. The ability to write clearly not only allows students to express their ideas, but can also help them grow in confidence.

In a recent peer-review exercise I undertook with my students, they had to correct each other's laboratory reports. The most common criticism from the students was of writing that did not express ideas clearly enough, and the exercise directly demonstrated how important good writing was in communicating ideas.

I asked undergraduates to rank, in order of importance, five things they would gain from their biology degree. I included having a knowledge of biology (broad and also focused on their area of interest), being able to communicate verbally, having good writing skills and maths skills. I was pleased to see that writing ability came second to a focused knowledge of biology, after all the preaching I did in the first semester, but quite disappointed to see maths ranked last.

Employers take on scientists because they believe they can communicate well and handle numbers adeptly. We are failing students if we don't deliver science graduates with these skills. I believe many have been failed by their schools, which do not deliver students with basic abilities in maths and literacy, and this makes our job in universities a steep uphill task.

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