UCL News


Maths in schools

24 August 2004

A UCL pilot study has examined how universities can bridge the gap between school- and university-level maths.

Judith MacBean

Judith MacBean of Education & Professional Development (EPD) and Dr Robert Bowles, Undergraduate Admissions Tutor in the Department of Mathematics, worked together to develop a series of challenging university-style maths questions which they presented to students at London's City & Islington College. UCL and the college operate a 'Partnership of Excellence', formed in conjunction with the government's Department of Education & Skills, to raise aspirations and achievements of the sixth form students.

University maths departments have become increasingly concerned that school leavers are not equipped to face the challenge of university maths courses. Although the maths A-level syllabus covers core mathematical skills, it does not provide the integrated overview of maths needed for university study. As a result, many students struggle with first year maths courses.

The pilot study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, aimed to find out whether school students would react positively to the maths questions, and how much support they would need to attempt them. It revealed that nearly all of the students were able to attempt the questions with minimal support. The pilot may pave the way to more extensive research, said Judith, who was delighted with the results: "We trialled the questions on 100 new UCL undergraduates in the Department of Mathematics and a dozen school students who were doing A-level maths and further maths. Some people were convinced that the school students would be overwhelmed by the questions but, in fact, our study showed that students found the experience valuable and enjoyable."

With high dropout rates from undergraduate maths courses throughout the UK, maths bridging programmes like this one could save time and money by encouraging the most suitable students to apply, explained Judith: "Unfortunately, there is little correlation between performance at A-level and performance at undergraduate level - even straight A grades are no guarantee of success. Showing school students university-style questions can at least give them a glimpse of what lies ahead. Some students may realise that university maths is not for them, but we think that most will be inspired and motivated."

The maths bridging project is just one of a number of initiatives run by EPD to help smooth the path between school and university. Other ventures include taster courses run in conjunction with minority language departments to encourage school students to study these languages and the academic communication programme for undergraduates.

To find out more about these different EPD initiatives, use the links below.

Education & Professional Development
UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching