Saturday 1 November 2014

Maths is key to staying the course with third-level education

Published 28/12/2013 | 02:30

Prior success in maths is the strongest predictor of successful progression through higher education
Prior success in maths is the strongest predictor of successful progression through higher education

THE reason, or reasons, a student drops out of a third-level course during or after the first year are many and varied, and start long before entry to college.

Colleges themselves are putting an increasing focus on what are regarded as the crucial first seven weeks in higher education, with policies and practices in place to make freshers feel at home

But such welcome and supports will be of little help to students who find themselves on the wrong course, or not academically equipped to make the transition from second to third-level.

It is not in the first seven weeks of college, but in the previous seven years of a child's education experience, and even further back, that the roots of non-progression can be traced.

Let's start with maths. Prior educational attainment, most specifically in maths, is the strongest predictor of successful progression through higher education, according to a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report, 'A Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education', a few years ago.

Maths performance has not been a strong point for Ireland. At the time of the HEA report, only about 15pc of Leaving Certificate candidates took maths at higher level, while Irish 15-year-olds have produced lacklustre results in international tests in the subject.

The recent introduction of bonus points for Leaving Cert higher level maths has seen a jump to about 25pc of students tackling it. Much faith is also being invested in the new Project Maths syllabus to improve standards. Time will tell whether these initiatives translate into better outcomes at third-level.

Another measure of educational attainment is CAO points and the same HEA report found that students on lower points were less likely to progress in college.

That is true regardless of whether in university or institute of technology, or on a Level 8 (honours degree) programme or a Level 7/6 (ordinary degree/higher certificate) programme, although the fact that entry to a Level 7/6 course -- usually in an institute of technology -- generally requires lower points is reflected in higher course dropout level.

It begs questions about how the system has treated students up to Leaving Certificate level, with plenty of evidence that those who enjoy the most advantage produce more points and, as a result, have greater choice and are more likely to pick the right course.

Students may also take the wrong path because of low expectations set for them by parents, who, perhaps, have no experience of third level, or by schools. In the absence of proper advice, these teens will struggle to make the right choice.

A 2012 report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) pointed to how students from working-class backgrounds were not getting the same career guidance as those in a fee-paying school.

Grant support is among the other factors that play an important role in student retention, and among the raft of reasons why course dropout requires a multi-faceted response.

Irish Independent

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