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Maths skills, job-hopping engineers and snail mail

27 September 2012

A few interesting studies have come to light recently that tell us what we probably already knew, but which might still surprise us.

Rising scores in secondary maths examinations in England over the past 30 years do not appear to stem from real increases in mathematical understanding, according to new research from King’s College London. Despite a dramatic rise in exam pass rates, an analysis of secondary pupils' performance in algebra, number and ratio tests conducted last year suggests that there has been little overall change in maths attainment since the 1970s.

During the summers of 2008 and 2009, researchers from King's, in collaboration with Durham University, tested a nationally representative sample of more than 7,000 students, aged 11 to 14, from 19 randomly selected secondary schools. Researchers gave students a set of tests that were sat in 1976 and 1977 by 11 to 14-year-olds who took part in the influential ‘Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science’ study.

Professor Jeremy Hodgen, who led the research team, said the results highlight a serious problem in maths education. “There are far fewer changes in mathematical attainment over the past 30 years than might be expected, or which have been claimed,” he says, adding that there are greater proportions of pupils with very low attainment and smaller proportions of students with very high attainment, in 2008 and 2009.

Moreover, Professor Hodgen says there is little evidence for the sort of step-change in mathematical attainment which might be suggested by the substantial improvements in examination results.

The job-hopping engineer
Employees in the science and engineering sectors are likely to change jobs more frequently than other professions in order to progress their careers, according to the latest Kelly Global Workforce Index. Some 59 percent admitted that in order to hone their skills and grow their career, changing employers is more important than remaining with their existing one. In particular, over two thirds of engineering employees consider gaining experience with multiple employers to be a key asset.

Nearly two thirds (60 percent) went so far as to say that they do not feel their current employer is realising their full potential, and less than half (49 percent) of those surveyed do not believe that they will be able to progress their career in the next year at their current organisation. 

Dominic Graham, who heads up Kelly’s scientific and engineering recruitment services sees a “more fluid” approach to employment among these disciplines. “Gone are the days of a job for life,” he says. “These employees are eager to learn new skills and believe that by constantly being aware of opportunities and moving jobs they are more likely to fast-track their careers.”

Mr Graham believes that in order to counter this mindset, employers need to ensure they are offering the most comprehensive development strategies, and proactively promote them to both internal and external audiences. “By building their employer brand, they can increase loyalty and therefore improve talent retention – as well as attracting potential employees to their candidate pipe-line,” Mr Graham adds.

Snail mail – don’t give up on it yet
The rise of social media is often associated with a decline in the use of traditional forms of paper-based correspondence. However, a recent study by PhD researchers, Ryan Kelly and Daniel Gooch, from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bath has found that the old methods of communication, now often overlooked, are actually more valuable than ever before.

The researchers studied communication practices in the online community ‘Postcrossing’, where members send paper-based postcards to other members around the world. Their research seeks to understand what it is about sending a postcard that motivates participation in this community. It is hoped that by understanding this, new communication tools that incorporate the most treasured elements of digital and traditional correspondence can be designed.

Ryan Kelly says that with the rise in use of email, Facebook and online forums, it would be easy to believe that the writing of letters is dying a death. “However, we’ve found that the power of these technologies mean that there are opportunities to facilitate the exchange of paper-based media in new and exciting ways. From the knowledge achieved through this study we plan to derive some design criteria to help improve digital communication systems.”

The research found that the most valued elements of correspondence through postcards were the stamps, the wear and tear received during transit and the use of personalised images on cards, according to co-researcher Daniel Gooch. “People like to receive a letter through the post, it carries an element of surprise, people are keen to quickly find out who the letter is from.”

It seems we still treasure the elements of paper correspondence of which those of a certain age will hold fond memories. So it is all the more fascinating to see a younger generation, such as these University of Bath researchers, taking a renewed interest in what we probably all thought was a lost art, in order to build more meaningful digital communication systems.

Les Hunt

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