Deans study maths’ role in uni success

The Australian

Australian Edition

Publish Date: 23 May 2018 22:00

Section: HIGHEREDUCATION, p.27

As many as 12 universities across Australia will co-operate with a research project to determine how important high school mathematics study is for success in tertiary-level science courses.

The University of Sydney has already decided to introduce maths prerequisites for certain courses starting next year and other tertiary-level institutions are considering following suit.

The study, commissioned by the Australian Council of Deans of Science following widespread debate on the importance of high school maths for different university courses, has already confirmed the participation of six universities and several others are also likely to participate.

ACDS executive director John Rice said it was important to understand more about the levels of maths understanding needed for university courses.

“In looking to introduce prerequisites, we need to gather solid evidence that connect the level of mathematics study with performance at university,” Professor Rice said.

“I think the syllabuses need to be reviewed more carefully so there is a solid argument about the utility of the various courses, and whether you can really make a case that this level mathematics subject will actually help you in a particular course.

“We run the danger if we force prerequisites on students – all we may do is create a generation of students with an inspired hatred of the subject.” Studies conducted by individual universities suggest that without a solid understanding of maths at more than the very basic level, students were more likely to fail first-year science courses.

Debate on this issue has prompted consternation in the sector, which has culminated in the research study.

“A year or two ago, you couldn’t have got the deans to co-operate like this, but now they are,” Professor Rice said. “They want to know what the real story is here. They need to know it will make a difference.” The ACDS has asked the Australian Council for Educational Research to conduct the research.

Daniel Edwards, ACER’s principal research fellow, said the work would take some time but he hoped it would be finished in the coming months.

“We’re at the recruitment and data evidence-building stage of the project now,” Dr Edwards said. “I think we have five or six universities who are absolutely on board. Our ambition is to get 12 universities to participate.” Work has begun on mapping equivalence across different Year 12 maths courses around the country. Each state offers different mathematics subjects over as many as four levels, and different maths subjects have different names.

This information will be built into a database to find out whether earlier research conducted by the University of Sydney and others is replicable, expanding over a broader scale to include as many universities as possible in a nationally representative way.

Dr Edwards said the earlier -research suggested that even poor results in advanced maths subjects improved students’ chances of doing well in a first-year chemistry course.

“The requirements of the project are relatively sophisticated in terms of the data we need to collect in order to be able to say something useful,” he said, while predicting that access to the data that the project needed would limit university participation.

The study needs both comprehensive information about the depth of students’ mathematics study before they enrol in university and data about the students’ university results. Some universities would have difficulty merging these two datasets.

Certain mathematics academics have been pushing for an -increased emphasis on the importance of solid maths understanding in preparation for university science courses, including biology, chemistry and physics, and other courses that -require higher levels of mathematics understanding.

Geoff Prince, of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, has been encouraging universities to introduce mathematics prerequisites for various courses. “There’s more indication at the moment of consideration on this matter than there has been for 10 years,” Professor Prince said.

SIAN POWELL

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ACDS paper: Evidence-based practice in T&L

The ACDS has launched its first occasional paper Evidence-based practice in learning and teaching for STEM disciplines from Tina Overton and Liz Johnson. The paper uses the published evidence on how learners learn to make the case for active learning, scaffolding and flipped classroom, authentic assessment. The authors translate the research to direct advice for teachers and teaching teams for STEM. Use this as a springboard for discussion in your Faculty.