Need a little help figuring it out?

June 6, 2003

Students at Coventry University sing the praises of a drop-in centre offering one-to-one support for those struggling with maths, says Duncan Lawson

The so-called "mathematics problem" is not a 21st-century phenomenon, despite the government's national inquiry. It has been around for at least 15 years. Former polytechnics were the first to notice that students were having more difficulties than their predecessors with maths units as well as with analytical subjects, such as thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, that required mathematical fluency.

One common factor stood out: students were from more diverse backgrounds. A typical engineering cohort at Coventry Polytechnic, for example, included students with unexceptional A-level grades. Some had arrived via a vocational route, with national diplomas and the like, others via the polytechnic's foundation year in science and engineering and a smaller number via access courses at local further education colleges. The last two groups usually contained more mature students. There were also overseas students, but they were usually able mathematically.

The mathematics department approached oil company BP to fund a project aimed at identifying students with problems at an early stage and providing them with support. The bid was successful and the BP Mathematics Centre was born. It consisted of a room furnished, courtesy of our sponsors, with green chairs with yellow cushions and a manager on a two-year contract.

Diagnostic testing of students from "at-risk" cohorts started during induction week. The manager designed a 50-question multiple-choice test that is still in use today. The test covered seven areas: arithmetic, basic algebra, lines and curves, triangles, further algebra, trigonometry and basic calculus. The departmental technician wrote a computer program to process the students' answers and produce diagnoses of strengths and weaknesses. Academic staff were drafted in to transcribe the answers into electronic form. In the second year, the department purchased an optical mark reader. Students entered their answers on special answer sheets that were machine readable. The OMR is still in use today, although it has reached the stage where you have to treat it very gently.

The diagnostic test was initially used with students who were enrolling on courses with a history of high failure rates. These were typically higher national diploma and engineering courses, such as production and manufacturing, that are less reliant on maths. The two main purposes of the test were to give students an indication of gaps in their background knowledge and to give academic staff an overview of the competence of the new cohort.

A side-effect of keeping the test the same over a number of years has been that the accumulated data show how the skills associated with a particular qualification change over time. Throughout the 1990s, there was a strong downward trend and by 1999 the performance of students with grade B in A-level mathematics had dropped to the same level as that of students with grade N in 1991. Since 1999 there have been further falls. We now use diagnostic testing with new students on all courses with a significant mathematical element. In addition to the original test, a further test has been introduced for students who are mathematically less well qualified.

About 250 university departments conduct some form of diagnostic testing in mathematics. This is of limited value and can have a negative effect, however, if all it does is show students that they have lots of weaknesses.

We don't want to scare students, we want to help them. The message that students can simply turn up at our centre and discuss their problems and possible remedies with staff is printed across the bottom of every individual diagnosis. We have even changed our name to the Mathematics Support Centre. We offer one-to-one help on a drop-in basis for more than 30 hours a week. This is in addition to a range of books, handouts, computer resources and a well-developed website.

Herein lies the biggest strength and greatest weakness of this model. We are good at helping students. Those who come for help are glowing in their praise. Research has also shown that students who come regularly perform significantly better in their whole programme of study, not just mathematics, than similarly qualified students who do not. And our weakness? There are too many who still do not come for help.

Duncan Lawson is director of the Mathematics Support Centre, Coventry University.

Details: www.mis.coventry.ac.uk/ maths_centre

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