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Universities should require science, engineering and commerce students to know their maths

Many university degrees require a high level of maths skill. Shutterstock

Universities should require science, engineering and commerce students to know their maths

Many university degrees require a high level of maths skill. Shutterstock

In 2013, a meeting of academics specialising in teaching first year undergraduate mathematics (known as the FYiMaths network) identified that the broad removal of mathematics prerequisites for many undergraduate degrees had created the biggest challenge they faced in teaching.

Many individuals had made attempts to pass this message up the management line at their universities. But at that time, staff believed that reintroducing prerequisites would never happen.

However, earlier this year The University of Sydney announced it would do exactly that, by requiring students studying science, engineering, commerce and IT to have completed at least intermediate level mathematics in high school.

The Australian Academy of Science’s Decadal Plan for the Mathematical Sciences, launched in Canberra yesterday, continues this push. One of its key recommendations is the reinstatement of mathematics prerequisites for science, engineering and commerce degrees.

But will it improve the level of maths education? Will it bolster mathematics skills in those studying science, engineering and commerce?

Opting out

A prerequisite study for entry to a degree is considered to be essential background knowledge that students need in order to be successful in that degree. A student cannot be selected into the degree if they do not have the stated prerequisite or an equivalent to it.

Over the past two decades, most universities have moved away from mathematics prerequisites, replacing them with assumed knowledge statements. This means that students can be selected without verifying that they have in fact completed this background study.

So what’s wrong with that?

In most cases, the assumed knowledge statements are unclear and often difficult to find, so students may not be aware of the assumed requirements. The removal of mathematics prerequisites also grossly underplays the level of mathematical facility required for these courses and trivialises the learning and skill development required to acquire it.

It places the burden on students to decide what should or should not be known in order to succeed in a course, and to assume the risk of those decisions, even though they are in no position to know what the risks are.

As a consequence, large numbers of students have been enrolling in mathematics-dependent courses without the assumed knowledge.

Over the last decade or more, numbers of students studying intermediate and advanced level mathematics in school has been in steady decline. Students have been free to make subject choices based on maximising their ATAR score rather than choosing the subjects that will best prepare them for their chosen career.

Since intermediate and advanced mathematics subjects are seen as hard and deemed not necessary for entry, students have been allowed – in some cases even encouraged – to opt out.

On the other side of the enrolment gate, consequences for students include being required to undertake bridging courses (some at extra cost) and having limited pathways through their degrees. Students do not generally know this at the end of Year 10 when they decide on which subjects they will choose for their Year 12.

Neither do they know that these choices may impact on their ability to succeed in their tertiary studies. Failure and attrition rates are generally high in first-year STEM subjects. And lack of the requisite background in mathematics plays a significant part in this.

Students who enter university without the assumed knowledge in mathematics also generally have lower success rates than students who have the assumed knowledge from school, even after they have completed bridging courses. In consumer terms, this buyer beware approach is not working.

So, where does that leave us?

One piece of the puzzle

Universities have a responsibility to determine what minimum background knowledge students require to be successful in a course. Once that determination is made, they should be required to ensure that the students they accept have that required knowledge.

Reintroducing appropriate mathematics prerequisites should increase participation in intermediate and advanced level mathematics at school. It has to.

We want students to take full advantage of the excellent education that is available to them through our secondary school system rather than trying to play catchup for years later.

Engaging students in the study of mathematics at school needs to be addressed on many levels. Certainly, making strong statements about prerequisites is one piece of the puzzle, but not the only one.

The Decadal Plan also calls for an urgent increase in the provision of professional development for teachers, especially those teaching mathematics out-of-field. It is essential that we support our teachers at all levels of education, so that we can give students the best possible education in mathematics that we must.