A project that will benefit academics, institutions and students unpacked at Mathematics CoP

Published On: 6 May 2022|

A moment of thoughts and prayers was dedicated to KwaZulu Natal communities and colleagues at the first meeting for the year, of the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP) on 20 April.

In her welcome to the CoP delegates, Chairperson, Dr Pragashni Padayachee (right), Senior Lecturer: Mathematics; Academic Support Programme for Engineering (ASPECT) at the University of Cape Town, acknowledged the tragic devastation wreaked by the floods.

She moved on to say that concern around the success of students united this community of practice, and that the pandemic had highlighted the value achieved by the group. Platforms such as Teams and Zoom had helped defy geographical and other limitations and made it possible for this CoP to continue.

“As a CoP, we have an incredible opportunity to share our challenges, our experiences and our solutions and to ultimately benefit the teaching and learning of mathematics.  This was something we realised at the conception of this CoP in 2016 and this academic camaraderie and support was never more needed than in the past two years. I’m hoping that we can continue this into the future.”

Dr Padayachee kicked off by welcoming feedback on a recently completed research project, The Diagnostic Mathematics Information for Students Retention and Success Project, (DMISRS), that began in 2018.

Robert Prince, Principal Investigator at The Centre for Educational Assessments (CEA), explained the purpose of DMISRS as “a national collaborative project that aims to analyse the curricula of first year mathematics courses in Higher Education in order to establish how best to address students’ needs through curriculum integrated support initiatives, including blended learning.”

The individual areas of need for students in identified institutions were determined through the national school certificate (NSC) Mathematics and national Benchmark Tests (NBT) sub-domain analysis before the identified support needs could be further  workshopped.

The project, Prince said, will benefit academics, institutions and students in the following ways:

  1. It will enable academics to leverage the diagnostic potential of the provided information in addressing the needs of their particular students.
  2. Individual student reports will enable academics to address the mathematical diversity in a programme rather than follow a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.
  3. The information resulting from the analysis could be used by institutions as a tool for student placement and support and to establish curriculum-integrated support initiatives.
  4. It will enable academics to make evidence-based decisions for curriculum change to enhance student success.
  5. It will enhance curriculum support in Mathematics to increase student participation and success in Mathematics.
  6. It has the potential to change the profile of students succeeding in Mathematics.
  7. It will enhance the first year experience and reduce attrition – this being of critical importance, Prince said.

Prince made some ‘high level’ comments:

  • The project has been able to create a first year Mathematics CoP by bringing together approximately 169 participants over the last four years – mainly first year maths lecturers at all higher education institutions. This was done through four annual DMISRS symposia and email communications.
  • DMISRS has been able to run approximately 15 workshops at 13 institutions.
  • The project has surveyed the DMISRS participants to understand the broad mechanisms available to first year Mathematics students.

In addition to the institutional workshops, Prince said DMISRS had run four highly successful online workshops, namely:

  1. A diagnostic assessment of strengths and weaknesses to inform the development of wrap-around support which, he said, “is important so we don’t focus on one thing”.
  2. The requirements and methodologies on NBT diagnostics.
  3. The use of diagnostic instruments to understand the student profile.
  4. Responding to students needs through a data driven approach.

Challenges encountered

Prince acknowledged that the DMISRS project had faced challenges with activities associated with blended learning.  “I think this is because blended learning is happening beyond recordings of lectures. The question about who owns the lecture recordings is one of the challenges that we face nationally.”

He added that the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) had also created challenges related to the sharing of student and institutional data. “Where we have been provided with the data, we have been able to engage with the institutions, analyse the data and provide them with reports.”

Next steps

Prince said that the proposed activity for 2022-2023 is to provide DMISRS participants with the national annual NBT report. “We want to put together a multi-institutional NBT mathematics review workshop panel where we will talk about NSC and NBT mathematics diagnostic reports and how to develop them on the sub domain levels to inform first-year mathematics.” The results of that workshop would, in due course, be shared with first year lecturers and stakeholders across the sector.

Face-to-Face symposium

Prince said they were planning a two-day face-to-face symposium in September, themed: What does it take to teach mathematics in Higher Education?” He suggested making this an annual or bi-annual event as it was an important and played a much-needed role in the sector. In addition to the symposium, DMISRS will run four institutional workshops at Rhodes, Tshwane University of Technology, University of Johannesburg and University of Zululand.

Also planned for 2022 was a blended learning CAMP pilot, “to see how we can provide bridging resources for teachers at high schools and students with digital resources.” They were thinking of Ted X-style presentation maths training videos and asked for input from the CoP. Prince said Covid had changed face-to-face large lecture theatre formats. He added that more thought needed to be given to the individual student, “especially when we think about diagnostic information and how we teach our maths first year courses – which is the focus of the DMISRS project.”

Rounding up the value of collaboration over the past four years starting in 2018, Prince said lecturers had seen the value of mutual support as it became clearer that

universities were facing similar challenges. People began to share their experiences.  In 2019, participants emphasised the need for blended learning materials, taking context into account and the value of collaboration. In 2020, the efforts and creativity that academics unleashed to assist students’ transition to online learning during lockdown came to the fore. Similarly, university challenges were identified. In 2021, the need to embrace technology and innovative teaching and learning methods came into focus. Again, the value of an academic community in terms of sharing common experience and challenges were raised. Prince said: “In interviews, we found collaboration was key through the sharing of ideas, knowledge, common challenges, problem solving and ideas for resources. People talked about networking and using diagnostic data.

Other matters of concern

Prince said various details of a course were examined, including course artefacts like textbooks.  He emphasised the importance of knowing the difference between the stated, the taught and the assessed curricula, saying students often struggle to differentiate between the three elements. This had to be borne in mind when reflecting on expectations, particularly in assessments.  “We must be cautious with our assumptions about the foundations in the disciplines.” Prince said content and textbooks give students foundational knowledge but are not part of the NSC curriculum with little time dedicated to it in teaching.

“We should be aware of any implicit skills our curricular assessments and exercises require.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.