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Telegraph: "Spoon-fed students 'struggling with university maths' "

(29 Posts)
Saracen Tue 07-Aug-12 23:14:26

Spoon-fed students 'struggling with university maths'

What do you think?

I'm not familiar enough with the GCSE and A-level curriculum to know whether this is a fair criticism. If it is true, is it the curriculum itself which is to blame, or only the teaching methods commonly used to prepare young people for the exams?

jess99 Mon 24-Jun-13 10:02:03

Hi everyone,

It's been a long time since anyone posted on this thread, but I would nevertheless like to add some thoughts.

I've come across many other similar articles, for example:


Even now (mid 2013), this continues to be a problem in many countries, not just the UK.

I believe that society should support two kinds of people with respect to mathematical abilities. (And of course the spectrum in between). First of all there are those who have exceptional mathematical abilities and insight, and can think in highly abstract terms. These are the people who advance the various sub-fields of maths, and science, and other disciples that are dependent on maths. They are very valuable individuals, and should be identified and promoted by the government and academic institutions of the nation.

On the other hand, there are many talented people, who do not have a similar aptitude or passion for maths. But these people may be perfectly suited to operate in advanced skills jobs, for which an education comprising partially of maths might be required. How do we support this type of person? Recently, there are websites coming on line that provide automated support to help anyone break apart mathematics into digestible, easily understood chunks, and to help reveal patterns that are used over and over to solve certain kinds of problems. An example is the Exdraft mathematics website This kind of website could help people achieve success in maths without necessarily becoming experts.

Some students use traditional methods (lectures, textbooks, pencil and paper) to discover these patterns on their own, but many others do not. Why not help people along? We have the technology now to make this commonplace.

Not everyone who drives a car needs to be an automotive engineer.

Not everyone who wants to find answers needs to be a researcher; Google helps them get the job done quickly.

And similarly, not everyone who needs to do a science/mathematics course or work in a cutting-edge field, needs to be a mathematician.

Couldn't we use different approaches to support different kinds of people?

Betelguese Thu 09-Aug-12 23:33:52

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 09-Aug-12 22:43:22


I certainly don't disagree with you because up until now, I don't think my lack of knowledge in Maths has held me back.
Why do you consider art more important? I am interested. It was suggested that dd would be good at maths as she is good at music, but she is only average really. I thought she may be more creative, but art, once again about average.

Betelguese Thu 09-Aug-12 22:28:51

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Betelguese Thu 09-Aug-12 21:44:11

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 09-Aug-12 21:35:39

I even wobble regularly as well as wooble

morethanpotatoprints Thu 09-Aug-12 21:34:25

Donki, sorry. I guess you can't tell somebodies tone on here. It was meant tongue in cheek really. It's nice to see conversations like this in H.ed rather than the usual threads confined to us talking about our dc.
I wooble regularly as just about to set out on H.ed and some days I'm quite confident I'll manage, then others I dispair, usually at my poor standard of education in Maths. Which unfortunately, many posters on here regularly get to read.
I'm not really upset. Honestly. I am reading with interest even though I haven't a clue what many of the terms mean, lol.

Donki Thu 09-Aug-12 20:33:58

Morethanpotatoprints - why is this giving you wobbles? The Telegraph article is about standards in maths, so of course we are all talking about maths...
I am sorry that it has upset you.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 09-Aug-12 18:32:36

Please will you all stop at. As nice as you all are and as entitled as you all are to talk about your very special level of Maths education, you are giving me the wobblies.
I know this level isn't expected for dcs but your'e all so clever and I'm not.
From what I saw teaching a none maths subject at A level, I think standards have definitely declined in English as even I noticed this as a dyslexic none GCSE person.

unitarian Thu 09-Aug-12 10:47:50

One other historical comment:-

Maths and Science graduates in the 60's had opportunities beyond the wildest dreams of the majority of today's graduates. Many went to the US to work on the space programme ( we even had our own), there was pioneering work in developing computers, aircraft and all sorts of technology we take for granted today.
Those who went into teaching were not the best.

40 years later my DD at the local comp has been taught Maths and Science by some highly qualified people who might well have gone elsewhere in the past. They teach across the ability range and are extremely adaptable as well as knowledgeable.
But what is good for the education system might not be good for the wider economy, I suppose.

unitarian Thu 09-Aug-12 10:01:49

Betelgeuse I think you put your finger on it. Universities tend to think students arrive all polished but they never did. There has always been a gap between the expectations of university teachers and the prep the students have had in the secondary system, whatever system is in place.
Unlike my bro, I was considered hopeless at Maths at school but have since found that I am rather fascinated by it. However, even though I went to a girls' High School, I emerged with no qualification whatsoever in Maths.

There is a perception that comprehensives/ the conversion to GCSE etc. are responsible for all ills but there were unmotivated, poorly prepared teachers in even the 'best' schools 50 years ago too - and only a tiny proportion of the population was given the 'opportunities' my brother and I had back then.

My DD is now 20 and has done brilliantly well in the comprehensive system, particularly in Maths and Science. She encountered some poor teaching too but the big difference, I feel, between her education and mine is that the National Curriculum is in place (moving from one county to another in 1962 was a disaster for me) and we knew from her early SATs results that she should succeed therefore we could ask questions of the school if ever she began to not achieve to expectation. My parents were fed the line that I was hopeless at Maths and never questioned it.

Betelguese Thu 09-Aug-12 09:16:31

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

unitarian Thu 09-Aug-12 01:22:22

I'm ancient. 'Twas ever thus.
My DB took his A levels - Maths, Physics, Chem - in 1964 at Grammar School, went to UMIST studying Engineering and struggled with the Maths.

CaseyShraeger Thu 09-Aug-12 00:54:06

My father used to be a Maths lecturer. i remember when I was around A-level/university age (also 20+ years ago) his saying that they now spent the first year of a maths degree teaching the students things that twenty years before that they'd expected all students to arrive already knowing. So it doesn't surprise me if that trend has continued.

Betelguese Thu 09-Aug-12 00:49:17

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Donki Thu 09-Aug-12 00:34:30

SMP - the only A level maths (and further maths) done at my school... and why I hadn't covered vector products... We did more calculus than some boards though (can't remember which ones)

AngelDog Wed 08-Aug-12 21:46:25

Cross posted - I understood your version better, omm! grin

AngelDog Wed 08-Aug-12 21:39:39

Erm....erm... grin

SMP 16-19 was our board (also known as 'Thicko Maths' at our school, which also did a Proper Maths syllabus).

I got through my degree by switching to social science for the second & third years, which was much more fun - even the maths bit.

ommmward Wed 08-Aug-12 19:52:57

I always had that joke this way:

what do you get when you cross a sheep with a goat? Mod sheep, mod goat, sine theta, travelling in a direction perpendicular to both the sheep and the goat.

What do you get when you cross a sheep with a mountain goat? You can't, you fool, because one of them is a scalar. (what with goats climbing mountains and everything. I'll get my coat.)

Donki Wed 08-Aug-12 17:45:26

(Angeldog, I'm sure you would remember if I muttered "vector product" at you - or maybe you followed the same board that I did! grin

My favourite joke depends on it.

What do you get when you cross an elephant with an aardvark?

Answer: elephant aardvark sine theta

What do you get when you cross a monkey with a mosquito?

Answer: don't be silly, you can't cross a scalar with a vector)

Helenagrace Wed 08-Aug-12 11:33:50

It goes further than university unfortunately. DH is an actuary and they are continually having to change their exam courses to take account of things that used to be in maths degree courses but aren't now.

DH now won't even look at a CV if that person hasn't been to a Russell Group university. He just knows they won't cope with the demands of the F.I.A. / F.F.A. Syllabus.

ommmward Wed 08-Aug-12 09:10:39

It's tricksy. A lot of what we do with our first years - especially on the more subject-specific side - would indeed have been covered at A level 20 years ago. But they arrive with other knowledge and skills that wouldn't have been expected to be part of A level. So in parts of the first year of our degree yes, it's catch up. But in other parts, they are starting from a level that 20 years ago they wouldn't even have had any formal tuition in at school.

Swings and roundabouts.

The thing which really gets to me is the near-universal concern for grades. "Why do we need to know this?" "How can I get a first?" I do sometimes feel that schooled children are tested within an inch of losing all their intrinsic motivation. It takes 18 months to 2 years for undergrads to regain it after leaving school IME.

AngelDog Wed 08-Aug-12 08:26:45

We didn't have remedial classes for economics at Cambridge 15 years ago, but I really struggled with the maths despite getting an A in it at A-level and ended up changing courses, partly as a result.

Yy to what Donki says about dropout rates.

The teaching across exam boards was huge. I ran into problems when I was asked at interview how I'd use calculus in economics. We were taught applied maths, then (sometimes) the concepts behind them. We had only encountered calculus in the context of finding the gradient of a ski slope. I really couldn't work out how that would apply to economics. smile

I'm still not sure I've ever heard of a cross-product. blush

Yourefired Tue 07-Aug-12 23:46:11

Another one here, Russell group uni studying economics and we (from the state sector) had to have remedial maths. This was back in the 80s. Thought "they" would have sorted it out by now. How naive of me.

Donki Tue 07-Aug-12 23:39:53

Other things to take into consideration, (cough splutter) more than 20 years ago, less than 10% of young people went to university. Now a much larger % go - so perhaps a greater spread of ability?
Also, a good 10% of the first years were expected to fail the course or change their minds and drop out - it was a normal part of the "winnowing" process (for want of a better expression). Maybe this level of failure is no longer considered acceptable? (Loses the university funds).

Certainly, as more students go on to 'A' Level now (a lot more), teaching has changed/improved to give more support for the greater numbers of weaker students, and also to help all students achieve better results. Inevitably, this means that students are accustomed to greater levels of support.

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