Students' weakness in maths leaves academics counting the cost

Physics and engineering academics are having to teach students who are unprepared for their courses because of “a gap in knowledge” on maths, the Institute of Physics has warned.

September 7, 2011

A report prepared for the IOP by EdComs and titled Mind the Gap: Mathematics and the transition from A-levels to physics and engineering degrees, suggests the relationship between maths and the physical sciences has been weakened by exams and narrow specialisation.

Philip Diamond, associate director of education and planning at IOP, said the report was commissioned as “this is an issue that has always been present in academia, and we were motivated to assess the level of the gap in knowledge.

“We found that physics A-level doesn’t actually include enough maths, and the links between the subjects are not made explicit enough, putting a large proportion of undergraduates at a disadvantage.

“Although 78 per cent who take physics A-level also take maths, there is a gulf between the maths taught at school and the demanding requirements of a physical science degree.”

The report is based on an online survey of 400 physics and engineering undergraduates and 40 academics, as well as a series of one-to-one interviews with students and lecturers.

Fifty-five per cent of the academics said their first-year undergraduates were “not very” or “not at all well prepared” to cope with the maths content of their degrees.

However, only one fifth of students felt ill-prepared for their courses in terms of maths. Mr Diamond said: “An issue is that students sometimes won’t identify that they have a problem, and even students who do well on paper still struggle with application.”

He added: “There’s only so much universities can do to alleviate this problem with maths and physics cohesion, schools need to deliver their teaching of the subjects using a more joined-up approach and lay the groundwork for students.”

Mr Diamond is currently discussing the implications of the results with government and exam boards.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said: “We need to ensure that our curriculum keeps pace with the demands of employers and universities.”

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