A forty per cent fail rate in mathematics for future economists and engineers inspired MatRIC to initiate a project to get to the core of the problem: insufficient prior knowledge.
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The article are printed in the latest edition of Nasjonalt organ for kvalitet i utdanningen - NOKUTs - ( the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education - NOKUT) SFU Magazine 2/2017. "SFU" means "The Centres for Excellence in Education Initiative". MatRICs vision is to be a national centre for improved mathematics teaching and learning in the natural sciences and relevant programmes of professional study.
MatRIC were evaluated by an international committee who concluded in December MatRIC were unanimously granted funds for five more years.
‘We were quick to get the student assistant project off the ground, because we realised we have no time to lose. We will then adjust the project as we go along and gain more experience,’ says Professor Simon Goodchild, director of MatRIC.
MatRIC focuses on mathematics teaching and learning in study programmes like engineering, natural science, economics and teacher education.
In the engineering and economics programmes, mathematics is a tool that enables engineers and economists to e.g. calculate the strength of structures or exchange rate fluctuations. But many students do not understand how important this tool is until well into their study programme. The fail rate in mathematics has been stable at 40 per cent for engineering and economics students in all of Norway.
There are great variations in the knowledge of mathematics that the students have gained from upper secondary school, from mere basic knowledge, meaning that the students must now learn new things, a good knowledge of mathematics, which means that much of the mathematics is repetition.
MatRIC’s project involves using student assistants to teach optional study groups. What’s new is that students are primarily split into groups based on their prior knowledge of mathematics. The goal is to increase the students’ insight into and understanding of mathematics and thereby reduce the fail rate.
NOKUT recommended that MatRIC participate at a conference at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, in May to get some new impulses. In addition to the MatRIC management team, the Vice Rector for Education and two leaders from Studentorganisasjonen i Agder (the student organisation in Agder – STA) took part.
‘At the conference, participants were presented MatRIC with guidelines describing how to ensure inclusion of students in the design of courses in order to prevent them from failing. The fact that STA had a seat at the table where we, together, arrived at a joint understanding of the concept of partners, is without doubt the greatest benefit from the programme in Canada’, says Kai Steffen Østensen, president of STA.
‘It's easy to say that you have the students on board, but it’s important that students have a real influence on an equal basis, and are not just included on paper. The fact that the STA leaders and the Vice Rector came along meant that we could implement measures quickly,’ says Goodchild.
‘The concept of “students as partners” is extremely important to create equality between students and academic staff in an academic community,’ says the STA president.
After the Canada conference, MatRIC hired students with a degree in economics as interns. The goal was to find out what knowledge the new economics students had acquired from upper secondary school and what they have to know to pass the exam.
‘I analysed the actual use of mathematics in, for instance, the bachelor’s programme in business administration,’ says Tore Guttorm Knutsen.
‘For instance, elasticity and present value are concepts that require knowledge of mathematics beyond simple addition and subtraction.’
The main goal was to make the analysis available to both students and teachers, so that the teaching – and studying – could target specific areas of use.
‘That means that the course description can also state that “in this course, you will need to know differentiation and integration” – specific mathematical areas – and "next semester, you will need to know such and such
mathematical concepts”, says Knutsen.
‘Being that specific opens up for real practical examples – which in turn promotes easier learning and understanding.’
Daniel Meselu has developed a system for mapping what knowledge of mathematics individual students have acquired from different programmes at upper secondary school. The goal is to compose groups of students for student-assisted teaching. It is up to the individual student to find his/her level.
‘To get everyone to pass, we need to find out the needs of the individual students and adapt the teaching accordingly,’ says Daniel Meselu.
It is for this reason he designed a booklet of 50 questions that the students had to answer. Afterwards, they were tasked with assessing their own level before the programme started.
The questions increase in difficulty and cover mathematics relevant to the programme.
‘The computer tells the students directly whether their answer is correct and gives them the solution. After that, it’s up to the student to assess what level they are at,' says Meselu.
‘The test should be expanded. Everyone should take it at the beginning of the semester and evaluation should take place immediately. It can motivate students to do something about their knowledge gaps. For students who do not know the basics, everything falls apart when the gaps start to make themselves apparent sometime into the semester.’
Knowledge of mathematics is built stone by stone, and if the foundation is weak, everything can come tumbling down.
‘I added some questions from the Year 10 syllabus to get an overview of where the students are at, precisely because of how important it is to have the basics in place,’ says Daniel Meselu.
After registration at the start of the semester, five groups of around 30 students each were set up – covering all levels.
The groups have been meeting for some time now. Turnout was poor at first, but has improved since the start of the semester. The exception is an ‘elite group’, where many students who want an A on their exam started the hunt for the holy grade early on.