Science and engineering undergrads lack fluency in maths, lecturers say

by Lucy Sherriff | posted on 07 September 2011

A survey of UK university lecturers has confirmed a suspicion of mine: the maths you get taught at school is just not up to the job once you get stuck in to your science or engineering degree.

According to the research - carried out by EdComs for the Institute of Physics (IoP) - more than half of the teaching academics surveyed felt their first year students were inadequately prepared for the maths content of their chosen courses.

And it matters: 92 per cent of those contacted* said a lack of fluency in maths would have “a detrimental effect on the prospects of young physical scientists”.

The research found students were less likely to describe themselves as under prepared, but one academic interviewed noted that students might not even be aware that they have a problem. “They know they are not quite understanding it but they can’t pinpoint where the problem lies.”

This reflects my own experience at university. Maths was the least popular, most complained about module on our course (apart from first year Nuclear Physics, but that was more to do with the airless rooms in which we were being lectured, and the hypnotic lecturing style employed by that particular teacher).

Even those of us who enjoyed Maths found it a stretch, and the lecturers often commented on our lack of knowledge. We tended to write it off as old greybeards bemoaning the demise of log tables, but our struggles as a group to get to grips with the basic vocabulary of mathematics stood in contrast to the mathematical fluency of visiting foreign students.

One engineering academic told the EdCom interviewers: “Deep down, the problem is, mathematics is a language that they don’t speak because they are not taught to speak it…. You can imagine when you present physics material, which is all equations, they just go bonkers.

“You need to have competence in mathematics to explain the concepts. They say the equations are so difficult but they don’t get the point that it is not the equations that are difficult; it is the concept that is difficult. You can harness extremely complicated concepts into one equation, this is the power of mathematics. They don’t seem to get that because they are not being taught in that way.”

The full report is here here

*Online questionnaires for 400 undergrads and 40 academic physicists and engineers, with a series of deeper one-to-one interviews.

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