Tuesday 23 May 2017

In my opinion: Support in maths will help third-level students progress

Dr Derek O'Byrne - Registrar, Waterford Institute of Technology

Last week's HEA report on Progression in Higher Education shows certain subjects, notably mathematics, are key predictors of future economic performance.

This is important evidence at a time when national strategy is directed toward knowledge-based employment and major employers are citing poor mathematics skills as a significant constraint on future development.

But, before we decry the educational system for failing to deliver on national objectives, we should take stock of the context in which these findings are based.

Higher education in Ireland has expanded rapidly. School-leaver admission rates are up from 20% in 1980 to about 60%.

We have created a mass-education system and this success brings a new set of challenges.

Increased participation involves a wider range of learners with greater variation in learning styles, which impacts on the likelihood of students to progress to graduation.

The first-year experience highlights the issues faced by both second and third-level educators. The goal of the Leaving Certificate is seen as entry to third level.

We talk of the points attained instead of the learning or problem-solving skills achieved, which are essential for career development. This approach may result in ill-prepared students presenting to higher education institutions.

Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) conducts exit interviews with first years opting out of courses. More than half do so because of decisions they made at second level.

Students may choose courses that do not suit them because they do not fully understand the content. They fail to realise the extent to which courses, particularly ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), are maths-based and struggle to engage with their programme as a result.

Unfortunately, course choices are all too frequently driven by the points agenda rather than preparing for the transition to higher education.

Similarly, third-level institutions have been struggling to manage the changed learning needs of students within the structure of first-year programmes.

WIT's academic council recommends new approaches to teaching and encourages greater engagement by promoting the first year as a transition experience.

Dealing with maths competence is a very specific challenge. Maths-based subjects are often the trigger for non-completion at third level.

The reform of the second-level maths cycle through 'Project Maths' is greatly welcome as it promotes confidence in maths with an emphasis on problem-solving skills. This should assist the transition of students into third level.

The third-level sector must also play its part. Higher-education institutions need to support first-year students. It is clear is that we cannot replicate at third level practices that do not always serve learners well at second level.

The key to improving student progression is managing the realities of a mass third-level education system.

In the late 1960s, Ireland moved from an exclusive second-level system to one that all young people now enjoy.

This resulted in mass second-level education with new types of schools, teaching methods and new societal norms. We would do well to learn from those times.

Irish Independent

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