Sunday 17 December 2017

Taking the fear out of maths by giving students more confidence

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Maths has a reputation for being a part­icularly chall­enging subject and students starting college are often surprised, if not slightly scared, by what is involved.

The subject is embedded in the first year of many degree programmes and, away from the school environment, some find it very daunting.

A new report* has come up with encouraging findings, showing just how manageable maths can be, if students avail of the supports available.

Most higher education institutions in Ireland have free maths learning support (MLS) such as drop-in centres, workshops, tutorials or online resources, giving students the opportunity to progress through their maths classes should they encounter difficulties.

The Irish Maths Learning Support Network (IMLSN) and the National Centre for Excellence in Maths and Science Teaching and Learning (NCE-MSTL) commissioned research - the first of its kind on such a scale in Ireland - to measure the impact of the service.

The study involved more than 1,600 first year students, in nine colleges, from disciplines as varied as science, engineering, computing, business, arts and education, and the common thread was that maths was one of their subjects, albeit to varying degrees of engagement and difficulty.

Over one-third (36pc) of the students used MLS. Of the remainder, half said they did not need help leading to the conclusion that the other half did, but were not availing of it.

The majority of MLS users reported it had a positive effect on their confidence, performance and ability to cope with the mathematical demands of the course.

Crucially, two in three students who had considered dropping out because of difficulties with maths, said that availing of support was instrumental in their decision to stay.

Female students and mature students are more likely to use an MLS service.

Dr Ciarán Mac an Bhaird of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Maynooth University, one of the co-authors of the report, says that maths is an integral component of an increasing number of third-level programmes, and it was critical that colleges give students the opportunity to succeed and progress in the subject.

He says students need to see that it is normal in maths to get things wrong, "but it is how you react to this that is important, and this is one of the areas where MLS is making a difference".

According to Dr Mac an Bhaird, it is a matter of attitude: "If you think something is hard you are fighting an uphill battle, but MLS changes students' perspective of maths from something that they can manage rather than something they are running away from."

Contrary to any assumption that MLS is only for weak students, he says very good students also avail of the service, as necessary, throughout their studies: "It is very good because weaker students see that it's ok to ask for help, that the good students don't know everything."

He says, in Maynooth, MLS is well used, because any first year doing maths has to complete at least one compulsory maths assignment a week, on which they are graded: "They cannot get away without doing that work; they have to try things, and if they get stuck, they can come to maths support".

Dr Mac an Bhaird sees huge differences in students between their first and later visits:.

"They are trying things and some may be wrong, but we see that as huge progress. They are talking about problems with maths; once they start talking and see maths as a process, they see it as something that can be figured out".

In general, in Maynooth Univeristy, students who avail of maths support, get better grades than those who do not.

*Report on Student Evaluation of Mathematics Learning Support: Insight from a large scale multi-institutional survey. Authors: Ciaran O' Sullivan, Ciarán Mac an Bhaird, Olivia Fitzmaurice and Eabhnat Ní Fhloinn.

Irish Independent

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