Remedial study no help to students

April 14, 2006

Harriet Swain surveys the upcoming meeting of the Royal Economic Society

Remedial maths help for university economics students does nothing to boost their academic performance, research has suggested.

In a paper to be presented to the Royal Economic Society annual conference next week, Johan Lagerlof and Andrew Seltzer will argue that students who achieve good A-level maths grades tend to perform best in university-level economics. Offering extra help to those without good grades makes no difference.

The findings have prompted the academics who conducted the study to suggest that universities should adopt a more hardline approach to admissions and refuse to enrol students who do not have a maths A level.

The paper concludes: "This suggests that an admissions policy that carefully screens applicants is likely to be less costly and more successful than a programme of remediation."

The researchers, from Royal Holloway, University of London, followed three cohorts of students - about 200 in all - at their institution to see how the remedial maths scheme affected degree results. In 1997 and 1998, no remedial programme was available. In 1999, however, it was compulsory for all those without A-level maths or with a poor A-level maths grade. By studying students from these years, the researchers removed the possibility that remedial help was sought only by the most motivated students, who were most likely to achieve higher marks anyway.

Dr Seltzer, head of the economics department at Royal Holloway, said that if the remedial classes were having an effect, the results achieved by the third cohort should have improved. But there was no difference.

He said it was possible that a more comprehensive remedial programme would be more effective, but such a programme would also be more expensive.

"The only sort of inexpensive solution is to screen applicants differently," he said. "For example, take only people who have done A-level maths," he added.

Bhagesh Sachania, spokesman for the economics network of the Higher Education Academy, said: "Teaching mathematics to economics students has become increasingly challenging for universities across the sector, regardless of entry qualifications. Diagnostic testing and remedial maths courses are inevitable but (are) only one aspect of an increasingly complex issue."

He said that there had recently been heavy investment in maths teaching support, including projects focused on economics. One project, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is developing a question bank of mathematics teaching and assessment materials for economics, video clips, teaching and learning guides and an interactive website.

Mr Sachania added: "It is disappointing that this study shows that remedial maths has no effect, but perhaps that reflects the way such courses are presently supported. As lecturers make use of this new assistance, we hope that the benefits will be revealed in future research."

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