Project Overview

The “mathematics problem” in the UK is deep seated: too few students are well prepared to continue their studies from schools and colleges into courses in Higher Education Institutions(HEIs) in a whole range of subjects, not only the “obviously” mathematically demanding.

Concerns have been raised by those involved in the sector (for example, Savage & Hawkes,2000) and more widely in national reports such as the Roberts Review (2002) which focussed on the supply of well qualified graduates in science, engineering and technology and the Smith Inquiry (2004) which investigated mathematics in the 14-19 curriculum. The latter report highlighted the shortage of well-qualified students and graduates at every level and called into question the appeal of studying mathematics as often structured in current courses. More recently the Leitch Review of Skills (2006) highlighted the potential threat to the UK’s long-term prosperity if the nation’s general skills levels were not raised. In particular, the review identified the high proportion of adults who had ‘difficulty with number’ and the
deficit in ‘intermediate and technical skills’ when compared with Germany and France.

HEIs face a particular challenge with students’ mathematical skills and competencies on transition into higher education and the need to raise the retention rate of first-year students on science and engineering courses. QAA noted the “relatively high failure rates … mainly due to the difficulties students experience in acquiring the essential mathematical skills”. HEIs address this problem in a variety of ways, almost all make use of ICT and a wide variety of materials has been developed. Electronic resources now exist to support most aspects of learning, teaching and assessment of the mathematical skills of students on transition into engineering and scientific disciplines.

However, most of these resources are either “home grown” with the needs of only one institution in mind and without reference to similar activities in other institutions or focus on one aspect of delivery such as diagnosis, motivation, consolidation or assessment. There are many examples of toolkits developed through a range of funding initiatives, such as TLTP and JISC, which are no longer supported or usable in the current higher education environment. Confirming this unsatisfactory state of affairs, Professor Adrian Smith's Inquiry into Post-14 Mathematics Education (op. cit.) notes that
“The Inquiry has not been able to identify any clear audit of the current availability and use of ICT delivered learning and teaching resources in support of mathematics teaching.”

For many years, partner institutions on this project, Liverpool John Moores University, and the Universities of Glasgow and Portsmouth, have used e-assessment as a crucial part of the delivery of mathematics courses, particularly for service modules at Levels 0 and 1. The system which they currently use , CALMAT , is no longer supported and hence has a limited future. There is an urgent need to provide alternative facilities of comparable scope and flexibility before this legacy software becomes unusable, and, in doing so, to take steps to prevent a repetition of the problems caused by unsustainable approaches to software development . In view of the prevalence and intractability of “the maths problem”, this urgency cannot be overstated.

The needs of mathematics go far beyond the obvious requirements for the rendering of properly formatted equations or unusual characters. In George Polya's famous words : “Solving problems is a practical art, like swimming or playing the piano; you can only learn it by imitation and practice”. E-assessment systems for mathematics exploit the technology when they provide students with the opportunity to try each type of problem many times. This requires that item authoring and test delivery systems support randomisable parameters in questions, in student responses, in judging, and in feedback elements such as hints and solutions . Furthermore, students need to learn to input well-formed mathematical expressions in answer to questions; the challenge for the system designer is achieving this without the need for complex mark up such as a professional mathematician might use. Finally, if x-2 is a correct answer to a problem so too is -2+x or -2(1-x/2) and numerous other variants so judging requires algebraic processing and feedback could include comments about the style of a student's answer.

Savage, M. D. and Hawkes, T. (Eds.): 2000, Measuring the Mathematics Problem (Engineering Council) London:
LMS and Roy. Soc.
Roberts, G: 2002, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. London: HM Stationery Office.
Smith, A.: 2004, Making Mathematics Count. London: HM Stationery Office.
Leitch, S.: 2006, Prosperity for all in the global economy – world class skills. London: HM Stationery Office. Subject Overview Report on Electronic and Electrical Engineering, QAA 1998
Polya, G. (1962). Mathematical discovery, on understanding, learning and teaching problem solving (vol. 1). London: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Start date: 01/10/2008

End date: 31/03 2009

Funded by: JISC