Maths degrees alter content equation

July 11, 1997

MATHEMATICS degrees have broadened over the past few years and are now less focused on catering for the elite, a new study reveals, writes Julia Hinde.

Peter Kahn of Liverpool Hope University College and Celia Hoyles of the Institute of Education in London looked at changes in the content of single honours maths degrees between 1989 and 1996 in around 30 universities, in a bid to see what effect changes in school curriculum and in increased numbers of undergraduates had on degree content. They found that increased introductory material had been added to more than half of English and Welsh maths courses, while less advanced content is now covered by degrees.

Seventy per cent of universities had sought to broaden courses, with a shift away from abstract mathematics, such as proofs, to courses where new applications of mathematics were included.

According to the researchers, as much as half a year's worth of abstract mathematics was cut from some degree courses, with some universities increasing the length of degrees to four years to take account of new applications.

Change, said Dr Kahn, was greatest in courses where the standard of intake was highest. Such programmes, he suggests, may have previously taken a narrower approach only catering for the elite, but now had to admit a wider range of students.

"It's surprising how similar the picture is to schools where the curriculum has also become broader with less emphasis on proof," said Dr Kahn. "The tension between broad education and specialised study is now common to both schools and higher education."

The researchers conclude that abstract concepts and proof are so important to mathematics that more steps need to be taken to promote students' interest in and competence at dealing with them. They stress that this must be done without compromising a broad mathematical education.

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