Add assistance, subtract stress

October 12, 2007

Students may joke about their poor maths skills, but you'll be doing them a favour if you help them tackle their numeracy problems, and their fear, right from the start. Harriet Swain sums up the benefits. Academics have long known that their students' arithmetical and mathematical knowledge is not what it used to be. The question is how to deal with numeracy problems before they get out of hand and lead to students, particularly first years, switching courses or dropping out altogether.

Fostering numeracy in your students has to start early, says Tony Croft, director of the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University. "With maths, it's no good students coming out of the woodwork and asking for help just when they need it," he says.

Mastering maths involves practice over a long period of time. But Croft acknowledges that this is not always easy. "More needs to be done to encourage staff to be more sensitive to the fact that a very broad range of students is now coming into higher education with very mixed maths backgrounds," he says.

Clare Morris, who lectures on introductory maths courses at the Open University and Gloucestershire University, says you must quickly ascertain students' level of numeracy, and unravel misconceptions they may have picked up at school. Hitting them with a maths test as soon as they enter university may not go down well, but the results could be vital.

Morris suggests getting students to discuss what they like and dislike about maths as a way of identifying where they need more support. Thinking about what they can do mathematically also boosts their confidence, which she argues is the key.

Michael Grove, assistant director of the Maths, Stats and Operational Research Network, part of the Higher Education Academy, says one-to-one tuition is essential for students who struggle.

But for others, Croft recommends directing students to two of the projects he helps to run - Mathcentre and Mathtutor. These provide open access resources on the web for higher education students struggling with maths in various degree subjects. The specialised maths support services run by many institutions are also invaluable in offering individual help, he says.

"A common mistake is for tutors generally to overestimate the preparedness with which many students come into higher education," he says.

Refer students to resources that are written at an easily comprehensible level, and make sure you are available if students have a problem. Don't say things that are likely to put students off or damage their confidence, such as "If you don't know this you shouldn't be at university."

Keeping students motivated is key. Highly motivated students who are intimidated by maths when they enter university can become successful mathematicians by the time they leave if they put in the necessary time and effort, Croft argues.

One way to help is to make it clear how maths is relevant to them. Grove says there isn't one person involved in maths teaching who will never have heard the phrase, 'When are we ever going to need this?' The answer is to use material examples that show exactly where students might need maths. To nursing students, talk about ratios in terms of medication; to geographers, in terms of population.

He argues that everyone needs some level of numeracy, whatever their discipline, and this needs to be made clear.

Croft says: "It's cool to be bad at maths, but no one will ever say 'I can't read' or 'I can't write'." He says that innumeracy needs to become as unacceptable as illiteracy.

On the other hand, Rob Eastaway, president of the Mathematical Association and author of popular maths books, says students need to feel safe about confessing what they do not know. Think about more than just maths relevancy in terms of subject disciplines and don't hesitate to use examples from daily life, he says.

Students are likely to understand and care about pensions, mortgages and utility bills. Eastaway gives the example of a utilities company offering a 5 per cent discount on electricity and a 5 per cent discount on gas and saying that would mean 10 per cent off the bill. He points out the overall discount would be 5 per cent.

Eastaway suggests demonstrating the relevance of maths with role-play games in which people are ripped off and then told where they went wrong, or in which students have to work out whether something is a good or bad deal.

Tricks for working out multiplication, explanations of instances of Murphy's Law and odd mathematical facts can all help students to stay interested in maths and realise its uses. By the time they reach university they are also old enough to learn about the more beautiful aspects of numbers, rather than merely memorising mathematical concepts.

Working through problems with their peers and using computers can also help. But Chris Budd, professor of applied maths at Bath University, says it is important to demonstrate that computers cannot do everything. "It is important that you are involved with the way a computer works. When it produces an answer, look critically at it and ask whether it is the sort of answer you would expect."

He says that, while individual tutorials are important to get people on track, "there's only one way to learn maths, and that's by doing it".

More details

Mathcentre, self-study resources for students and support materials for staff,

Mathtutor, video tutorials with diagnostics and exercises to help bridge the gap from school to university study,

Maths, Stats and Operational Research Network, The Mathematical Association,

Johnny Ball, Think of a Number , Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2005

National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics,

Clare Morris, Essential Maths for Business and Management , Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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