Making it all add up

May 23, 2003

Maths, science and engineering students are arriving at university with poorer mathematics skills than ten years ago. With two-thirds of departments providing extra tuition, there should be a unified approach. Caroline Davis reports on a project among four LTSN subject centres that aims to share good practice

Albert Einstein once said: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” His words are heartening to new students struggling to get to grips with university-level maths on science, engineering and maths courses. But for teaching staff, the mathematical background of their students has become a worry. Students are arriving at university less competent than ever in maths.

Coventry University has been testing students at entry since 1991. Analysis of the results reveal that the performance of those with a grade B maths A level in 1999 was comparable to that of students who had failed the exam in 1991.

Grade deflation is not the only issue. Fewer schools offer double maths A level and fewer top students choose science, maths and engineering courses. The homogeneity of the student cohort is a thing of the past. University expansion has led to increasing diversity in educational backgrounds.

Almost two-thirds of maths, science and engineering departments test new students to find their level of mathematical ability. A similar proportion provide extra maths help.

To date, each institution - department even - has battled in its own way. But MathsTEAM, an innovative project between four Learning and Teaching Support Network subject centres, aims to share good practice. It surveyed departments around the UK, collected 65 case studies and reproduced them in three guides covering diagnostic testing, support for students and maths for engineering and science.

Pam Bishop, assistant director of the LTSN maths, stats and operational research network, says: “There’s a lot of good practice out there. These case studies show that universities are actively addressing the problems in imaginative and innovative ways.”

The case studies describe a range of innovations, from interactive lectures, technology, drop-in centres, peer support and summer schools. Many of the best established programmes are at post-1992 universities.

Duncan Lawson, associate dean at Coventry University’s school of mathematical and information sciences, says the newer universities noticed the dip in mathematical competence earlier because they often took students with lower entrance qualifications. “They have a lot of experience to share with the older institutions,” he says.

Each case study explains the approach, looks at what staffing support was needed, reflects on the barriers and enablers for implementation, and tries to measure success. A section on how other academics can reproduce the approach is also included.

Money and constraints on staff time are commonly cited barriers, as well as entrenched attitudes to teaching. Many studies query what mathematics students really need to be taught. Student motivation, confidence and attendance are also issues.

The guides are intended to share best practice, rather than dictate to institutions. Lawson says: “We are emphatically not saying, ‘This is the way to do it.’ Rather, we are saying, ‘This is what some people do; it might work for you.’”

A problem shared...

Huddersfield University was one of the first institutions to recognise the maths problem and try to tackle it. In 1987, the far-sighted dean of the school of computing and maths set aside a small room with a couple of tables and chairs to create a focal point where students could discuss their academic problems.

The room didn’t get used much at first. Dexter Booth, mathematics lecturer in the school, explains that staff were still wondering how it could be used. In those days, students were nervous of approaching staff, he says.

Time, familiarity and word-of-mouth turned this around. The Open Learning Resource Centre now receives 18,000 visits a year, accommodates 60 students, has a full-time administrator and a commendation from the Quality Assurance Agency.

Dr Booth attributes the centre’s success to “a first-rate team of colleagues who are never judgemental and who are willing to walk blind into a problem and, at times, admit that they cannot help, but know someone who can”. Regular provision and good location  are crucial, as is access to a kettle, Dr Booth says.

A little game theory

Twice a year, Colin Thomas, chemical engineering programme manager at Birmingham University, becomes a quiz show host to help his students understand mathematical modelling.

He dreamt up the idea when he realised even he found his teaching stale. He improved his lectures, spiced up slides with jokes, animation and embedded video.

“It was more entertaining for the students and for me. And they were more attentive to the serious stuff,” he says.

He then looked at his problem classes and got students to work in small groups to develop teamwork and presentation skills.

“It can be difficult to keep to time because motivation is high. Attendance is excellent - I think word has gone out that the problem classes are worth the time.”

Poor algebra and an inability to apply techniques are the main problems. Students simply want a modelling “recipe book”, he says.

One problem class ends with a Who Wants to be a Millionaire?- style quiz, where students solve problems for chocolate prizes.

“The task now,” Thomas says, “is to think of other ideas.”   

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