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ESRC wants students better prepared maths-wise

02 August 2012

Research highlights lack of communication between schools and universities on adequate preparation of aspiring science and engineering undergraduates.

In a recent blog, I reported the startling fact that maths A* level qualified undergraduates reading engineering at the University of Cambridge needed 'remedial' maths tuition before they were deemed ready for their courses. Now, an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project has highlighted the problem, pointing a finger at current schools and college maths courses, which the project authors say are paying little attention to preparing students to use maths in other areas of study.

Moving from sixth form, or college, into higher education (HE) can be a challenge for many students, especially those who start mathematically demanding courses. A student's ability to apply mathematical reasoning is critical to their success, especially in HE courses like science, technology, engineering and medicine.

The study, undertaken by Professor Julian Williams, Dr Pauline Davis, Dr Laura Black, Dr Birgit Pepin of the University of Manchester and Associate Professor Geoffrey Wake from the University of Nottingham, shows that it is important to understand how students can prepare for the 'shock to the system' they face and how they can be given support at school, college and university to help in the transition.

The researchers found that students were not fully aware of the importance of the mathematical content in the courses they had joined at university, and particularly how to apply maths in practice. 

Professor Geoffrey Wake says different teaching styles of university lecturers and the need for autonomously-managed learning, where students need to learn some mathematical content of their courses on their own without input from lecturers, also came as a bit of a shock for many students. “On the other hand,” he adds, “some of the lecturers had limited knowledge of the exam-driven priorities of A-level maths courses and were not aware of the techniques students had been taught prior to attending their university courses."

The researchers also found significant problems in motivating students to engage with the mathematics within their chosen university course where mathematics was not their main area of study. Generally, schools and colleges were found not to be preparing students for university learning practices, and the level of learning-skills support was variable once students arrived at university. Professor Wake again:

"Many students felt that they would benefit from student-centred learning and greater opportunity for dialogue with their lecturers. Unfortunately, the efficiencies required of university teaching, resulting in lecturing of large numbers of students, makes developing such a learning culture unlikely."

The findings have led the researchers to consider the implications for the policies and practices of schools, colleges and universities recommending a better two-way flow of information between schools and colleges and universities to address the issues of preparation and expectation. They believe the sixth-form curriculum should provide 'learning to learn' skills and mathematical modelling for students following A-level maths courses.

Turning a blind eye to inappropriate video games
New legislation to stop children playing inappropriate video games will fail unless government deals with the underlying issue of irresponsible parenting. That is the conclusion of recent research in this area by Dr Nick Robinson from the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.

Video games are currently given an age-appropriate rating by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and the games manufacturers themselves using a voluntary industry framework, but critics argue these are ineffective because it does not prevent children playing games designed for adults.

According to legislation currently being introduced, responsibility will be transferred to the Video Standards Council (VSC), which will rate games according to the Pan European Game Information system (PEGI). However, Dr Robinson believes the new rules are just “a smokescreen” because they enable government to look like it is acting, when in fact it is abdicating its responsibilities.

“The new framework will not deal with the real problem of inappropriate games getting into the hands of children,” he says. It’s politically expedient and has been developed to avoid tackling the real issue of irresponsible parenting. What this shows is that the issue of video games may seem rather trivial at first, but it has many implications for politicians. To really begin to sort this issue, the state would have to be prepared to prosecute parents who purchase and allow their children to play inappropriate games.”

The video games industry is expected to yield worldwide sales of hardware and software of $87bn in 2012. Dr Robinson studied research on a major educational programme in the US designed to inform parents and children of the dangers of inappropriate video games.

“Experience shows us that in the US, despite a concerted effort to educate parents and children about the ratings system, which has led to high levels of understanding, a significant minority of parents still purchase inappropriate material for their children,” he continues.

“Why should the system in the UK be any different? Historically, the companies that produce these games have been largely absolved from the burden of responsibility because it is seen as the job of the state and the regulator. Perhaps, paradoxically, this means that this has legitimised the growth of more violent games as developers are shielded by the ratings framework.”

Video games and violence: legislating on the ‘politics of confusion’ by Dr Nick Robinson appears in the current issue of The Political Quarterly.

Les Hunt
Editor


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