Lively lecturers and study skills for students are keys to creating more maths graduates


Mathematics lecturers who bring the subject to life, and programmes to give students the study skills they need to tackle the subject at university, are called for in new research sponsored by the ESRC.

Teaching which is well beyond them and fails to stimulate interest is a big turn-off for undergraduates, according to the study led by Professor Margaret Brown of King's College, London.

Against the background of a shortage of maths graduates and teachers, the research examined why some students develop more positive attitudes to the subject, whilst others transfer, fail or drop out.

Researchers questioned students during three years of maths degree courses at two traditional city universities with high gradings for research and teaching.

They found many had been good at maths at school without having to work very hard, but whilst some adapted to more challenging work and the need for new styles of study, others did not.

Initially, students spoke of the usefulness of maths in general and for future careers. However, as they progressed, many were disappointed that the maths they were learning had become so pure as to have no obvious use.

Whilst 82 per cent felt initially that employers would look favourably on a good maths degree, this fell to 65 per cent by the end.

All were greatly helped by enthusiastic lecturers and tutors. Staff who appeared interested, brought life to the subject, engaged and interacted with students and made eye contact, were much appreciated. But other lecturers spoke to the board, did not look at students, and appeared uninterested.

Common complaints were lecturers going too fast and courses focussed on content rather than students themselves. Many felt there was so much ground to cover that there was little time to 'play around' with new knowledge and make it their own.

Statistics was not generally liked, even among those for whom it had been popular at school. This led fewer to specialise in this area although there is an acute national shortage of statisticians.

Students were enthusiastic about project work, which allowed them to consolidate what they had learned and work at their own pace. All felt more likely to retain knowledge gained from projects than learned for examinations. Poor lecturers had the most negative effect on middle-of-the road and struggling students. According to one student, some lecturers "would not have noticed if we'd all got up and left".

Successful students appeared able to cope, regardless of the lecturing style. A hindrance identified was weak command of English among some newly-appointed lecturers from, for example, Eastern Europe, taken on to meet the shortage of home-grown mathematicians. Some of these lecturers were also used to more formal relationships with students and did not expect to provide the support and guidance more usual in UK universities.

Professor Brown said: "With larger numbers of more diverse students going to university, more support is needed to help keep them there. For instance, maths study skills programmes would help students adapt to the new learning styles they will meet in higher education. "Struggling students need to be identified early on, and lecturers must be proactive in helping them. We found that when students had problems coping, most withdrew, blamed themselves and found it difficult to face and discuss difficulties.

"Some suggested that compulsory homework and tutorials throughout the course would help, and show that the teaching staff was actively concerned with their welfare and success."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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