First-years sure to make sum mistake

April 12, 2002

Universities cannot assume that new students have basic numeracy skills even if they have studied mathematics at GCSE or A level, concludes a study that presents evidence of a decline in maths capabilities in first-year undergraduates, writes Chris Johnston.

Vicki Tariq, a lecturer in the School of Biology and Biochemistry at Queen's University, Belfast, compared students' results in a test of conceptualised numeracy skills that is part of an introductory microbiology module. From 1995 to 2000, the number who correctly answered each question in the resit test fell from 63 per cent to 41 per cent.

In a diagnostic test of basic numeracy skills for bioscience undergraduates in 1999 and 2000, just 6 per cent of students correctly answered all 15 questions.

Dr Tariq found that many students - 63 per cent in one test - had trouble with questions requiring knowledge of fractions, logarithms or units of measurements.

The research, published in the Journal of Biological Education , was one of the first times quantitative evidence had demonstrated a decline in students' maths abilities, she said.

Universities need strategies to raise numeracy skills, Dr Tariq said. Some "remedial" classes have been introduced, but there has been opposition from some academics, many of whom remembered when students began university with the requisite skills, and from students, who did not want to retrace old ground.

"It's very hard to convince them that they have work to be done in bringing their numeracy skills up to scratch," Dr Tariq said.

Part of the reason for the decline in skills was a "tremendous over-dependency" on calculators, she said, because students could not tell if an answer was plausible.

She said the problem could be much worse in disciplines such as arts, which do not give students a chance to use numeracy skills.

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