Freshers' maths skills tested

September 27, 2002

A new activity set to become a tradition in freshers' week is sweeping the country - maths tests.

With concern mounting about the skills that mathematics A level provides, more than 200 maths, science and engineering departments across the country have introduced diagnostic testing to assess their new cohorts. More than 50 universities have set up campus-based mathematics support centres.

Even Warwick University has begun to test its maths students - the majority of whom have three grade As - to alert the university to areas in which the student may have become rusty.

Mike Savage, a mathematician at Leeds University's physics and astronomy department, said: "Academics are in the front line. They are faced with increasing numbers of mathematically ill-prepared students and are tired of hearing the now familiar mantra from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 'A-level standards are being maintained.'

"Something has to be done for these ill-prepared students, many of whom have good grades."

Coventry University introduced diagnostic testing in 1991. Each subsequent year it has asked students the same 50 questions in basic topics such as algebra, trigonometry and calculus. Analysis of the results revealed that the performance of those entering with a grade B maths A level in 1999 was comparable with that of 1991 students who had failed the A level.

Dr Savage has been awarded a £250,000 grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to create materials to help ease the transition of students from school maths to university-level work.

Leeds will work with Loughborough and Coventry universities and the Educational Broadcasting Services Trust to produce free maths support for students, including e-diagnostics, digital video tutorials and interactive exercises, delivered on CD-Rom and online. First-stage trials will be under way early in 2003.

Proposals for an "integrated science" degree, requiring less mathematics than traditional courses, will be presented to the Institute of Physics next month. The new degree working party was set up following the IoP report into undergraduate physics last autumn.

The group rejected the suggestion of a maths-free physics studies degree, which would concentrate on qualitative work rather than hard science.

The working party said: "Prestige attaches to the high quality of physics and the other hard sciences, not only in the minds of students and their teachers, but also in the minds of employers."

An integrated science degree, the group suggested, would teach a mixture of traditional sciences alongside the necessary mathematics.

The three-year BA would still enable those wanting to specialise to go on to masters courses to launch a research career.

It would also include options giving students teaching experience, allowing them to become teachers without another full year of study. Entrants would require only AS maths plus a science at A2 level.

"This is not dumbing down so much as smartening up," according to the working group's pre-report announcement.

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