School maths' shortcomings highlighted

5 September 2011

Many physics and engineering academics feel that new undergraduates in their subjects are entering university ill-prepared for their courses, and not achieving their full potential, because of a lack of fluency in maths.

A new report, Mind the Gap: Mathematics and the transition from A-levels to physics and engineering degrees, prepared for the Institute of Physics (IOP) by EdComs, suggests that exams and specifications have weakened the crucial relationship between maths and the physical sciences.

Gathering the opinions of both physics and engineering academics, and first- and second-year undergraduates in physics, engineering and computer science, the report highlights many academics’ belief that current maths and physics provision at A-level leads to students learning by rote rather than developing their own independent techniques.

As one engineering academic said in interview, “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.”

A physics student, also interviewed for the report, agreed, “The lack of any proper maths at A-level physics meant that I felt quite overwhelmed and had to learn the skill of deriving physical meaning from maths, something I’m still having to pick up on.”

There was close to unanimous agreement, as 92% of the academics contacted agreed, that the lack of fluency in maths would have a detrimental effect on the prospects of the young physical scientists.

A physics academic said, “If they haven’t really got to that level of fluency of understanding what somebody else is writing, let alone writing it themselves, yes, they are at a serious disadvantage.”

The report is based on an online survey of around 400 undergraduates and 40 academic physicists and engineers, along with a series of one-to-one interviews with academics and physics and engineering undergraduates.

More than half of the academics contacted asserted that their first year undergraduates were not very/not at all well prepared to cope with the maths content of their degrees and, although only a fifth of the students felt mathematically ill-prepared for their courses, many of the students’ comments from interviews acknowledged a gulf between the maths they were taught at school and their degree’s requirements.

One engineering academic said, “They don’t usually admit that they’ve got a problem.  They don’t quite understand what problem they’ve got.  They know they are not quite understanding it but they can’t pinpoint where the problem lies.”

A common complaint from both academics and students was the treatment of maths and physics in school as two distinct subjects; there is seen to be minimal crossover in terms of syllabus content, when in reality there should be a great deal.

Elizabeth Swinbank, Chair of the IOP’s Maths in Physics working group, said, “The Institute of Physics has, for some time, been concerned that physics and mathematics A-levels do not provide sufficient mathematical preparation for those who continue with their physics at university either within a physics degree or in other cognate disciplines.

“It established a 'Maths in Physics' working group to review this concern and to establish some hard evidence relating to it.”

Philip Diamond, Associate Director of Education and Planning at IOP, said, "The Institute will be discussing the implications of the report with the Government and the examination agencies."

In response to the publication of the report, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb commented, “We need to ensure that our curriculum and qualifications are robust and rigorous and that they keep pace with the demands of employers and universities. This research reflects widespread concerns that A levels are still not preparing students sufficiently well for the study of a science degree course at university, with insufficient maths preparation in science in particular.

“We will look at this report carefully but our reforms to date are designed to address some of these very serious concerns. We are overhauling the National Curriculum so teaching focuses on the core, essential knowledge that students need for further study. We will set out proposals shortly to put universities at the heart of developing A levels in the future. And we want to attract the brightest and best science and maths graduates into teaching with bursaries of up to £20,000 – to inspire future generations of undergraduates.”



Related information

Publication

Mind the Gap

Mathematics and the transition from A-levels to physics and engineering degrees