Agony aunt

January 29, 1999

Q Some of my engineering students have a rather elementary grasp of maths. What is the best way of helping them?


Janet Duffin Maths lecturer and head of numeracy project Hull University

Much of the difficulty is to do with calculators. In my experience, students often go straight to the calculator.

However, if they are going to use them to good effect, students really must be very good at mental estimating skills. Only then will they be able to judge if the answer they have is likely to be right. Many just do not or cannot do that. They accept silly answers from calculators without question.

The problem is that many students begin using a calculator in secondary school and pick up bad habits. I have seen a student get out a calculator to add 7,000 and 8,000. I had a very good student with A-level maths who found that using a calculator had affected her natural facility for maths and that she was using it to multiply by one.

When students come to me, I do not mention calculators. I concentrate on good mental methods based on sound principles. Only then can you appreciate what a calculator can do for you.

But the solution is not to abandon thecalculator altogether. Despite recent government advice to the contrary, I believe thatcalculators should be introduced in primary schools as early as five. Then it will not impede learning of mental skills, and pupils would not get in to the kind of bad habits we are now witnessing.

There is ample evidence of a lack of numeracy in society. The government has put numeracy high on its education agenda. We in the universities have an equal responsibility to ensure a numerate population. This can mean anything from a general competence with numbers in everyday life to a need for it within degree structures of other disciplines.


Malcolm Henry Admissions tutor Chemical engineering Bradford University

If students come here without A-level maths or with a poor result, we offer them a one-year foundation course that covers specifically the maths needed for degree-level engineering. To that extent, it is very different from A-level maths.

After completion, assuming they make satisfactory progress, they move on to the first year of the undergraduate programme. In total, they take a four-year course.


Peter Ashworth Head of educational research Sheffield Hallam University

We have a drop-in facility where staff from the maths department are available at set times for inquiries from students. This works on a sort of surgery basis and deals with acute problems of understanding.

The facility is not designed to deal with underlying maths competence or lack of it. However, if individual students are experiencing difficulties with particular aspects of maths, they can be dealt with very successfully.

The wider problem is one of supply and demand and of the relative attractiveness of engineering courses to students. We have to adopt the same attitude as classics departments, which can no longer assume thatstudents have a detailed knowledge of Latinand Greek.

It is not detrimental to teach at a more elementary level. Teaching has to be adjusted to the level of the students. Some members of staff feel this is demeaning, but it has just got to be done.

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