First-year mathematics students need intensive support to improve their experience, an on-going study has shown

Published On: 26 September 2022|

Intensive support, small groups and repeated exposure to information are some of the interventions needed to improve first-year mathematics students’ experience.

These, and other findings from a research project titled First Year Mathematics experience in Higher Education Institutions in South Africa, were unpacked by lead researcher, Dr Mark Jacobs from Cape Peninsula University of Technology at a recent meeting of Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP). He was feeding back on the massive DMISRS project being undertaken at their behest.

The TLM CoP meeting was held on 5 September, coinciding with the 5th Annual Diagnostic Mathematics Information for Student Retention and Success (DMISRS) Symposium that was hosted from 5 to 6 September in Cape Town.

Dr Pragashni Padayachee, Chairperson of the TLM CoP and Senior Lecturer: Mathematics in the Academic Support Programme for Engineering (ASPECT) at the University of Cape Town, said there were many synergies between DMISRS and the TLM CoP. She added that a collaboration between the two strengthened the maths education landscape.

For context: What is the DMISRS Project?

DMISRS is a national collaborative project that is analysing the curricula of first-year mathematics courses in Higher Education to establish how best to address students’ needs through curriculum integrated support initiatives, including blended learning.

Unpacking the first-year mathematics project

“We are investigating what sort of mathematics interventions are taking place at various higher education institutions across South Africa. In this first phase, a systematic literature review is being conducted which underscores the research project. Subsequent phases will go into Higher Education institutions to interview practitioners involved in first-year mathematics courses: lecturers and students.

“They will come up with interventions that will highlight what exists for us and allow us, as a CoP, to share information.” [The second project, not discussed at the recent meeting, is a teaching practice project around schoolteachers teaching mathematics.)

The Research

Dr Frikkie George, a Centre for Educational Assessments (CEA) researcher attached to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, recapped on the first phase (stages 1 to 4) information on which was shared with the TLM CoP at their first meeting earlier this year. Dr George said the literature review looked specifically at interventions for university mathematics.  The methodology entailed identifying the research question along with the relevant studies they wanted to explore. Criteria for the selection of studies was set and charted and the articles collected.

With the project now at Stage 5, researchers are collating, summarising, and reporting the results in terms of certain themes and trends. Seven themes were identified, of which only three were shared at the meeting on 5 September.

Theme 1: Developing a framework for interventions at first year level

Drawing from the Engelbrecht and Harding (2015), University of Pretoria paper: Interventions to Improve Teaching and Learning in first-year Mathematics courses: a case study for first -year students in science and engineering mathematics, Lead Researcher, Dr Jacobs, said the aim was the development of a multi-dimensional framework that looked at a strategy for improving success in first year maths courses.

Dr Jacobs suggested the following interventions, which, he said, most people used one or a combination of – in a multi-dimensional framework:

  • A one-week refresher course preceding the first semester.
  • Adjusting the curriculum to accommodate high school deficits.
  • Giving psycho-social financial support to at-risk students
  • Using online homework and assessment systems.
  • Offering supplemental instruction and tutor support.
  • Overview of lectures; winter and summer school.

“Their comment was that summer and winter schools were most successful. They took students who scored between 40 and 49% and gave them a shortened intense follow up/repeat course in summer and winter breaks, leading to 80% and more pass rate.”

Theme 2: Tutor and Teaching Assistant (TA) support interventions

This presentation was based on three articles summarised below.

The first, a mixed-method case study on boot camps for service sources in math (Campbell 2015), looked at supporting at-risk students (40-49%) to pass a reassessment exam and lay a solid foundation for future math courses.

The intervention was a boot camp with tutors during reassessment week. The findings were that boot campers performed better than those who did not attend. Also, there was an increase in the throughput rate of maths with students being more or better prepared for subsequent math course.

Dr Jacobs said this intervention was criticised for only benefitting at-risk (40-49%) students.

In the second study, the researchers looked at the “Role of tutors in quantitative literacy course” (Makhure 2020) that factored in tutorials being given by two tutors. The findings were that tutors were capable of noticing students’ key mathematical thinking and engagement during tutorials. There was also a chance for the professional development and learning of tutors.

The third study, “Reflecting on design and implementation of math tutorials” (Maharaj 2012), looked at various sized tutorials to determine which design type is most effective for student success. The finding was that organised small groups were found to work best. This highlighted the importance of tutorials in reinforcing the role of lecturers. Dr Jacobs summarised that intensive support, highlighting the importance of tutors and smaller groups, seemed to provide a successful formula.

Theme 3: Teaching approaches

A University of KwaZulu-Natal based researcher, Dr Daniel Angaama, said teaching approaches used in the interventions mainly focused on student-centred methods for supporting mathematics learning. This, he added, had to be accompanied by more innovative teaching compared with traditional approaches.

The articles he had studied, he said, showed intervention trends that included:

  • Team teaching, by both teachers and teaching assistants. (Engelbert and Harding 2015). “Especially in large classes, team teaching worked as it provided additional support,” he said.
  • Blended learning – where there is a combination of face-to-face instruction, and online activities.
  • Online teaching
  • Flipped Classrooms. “What was done in the classroom was supplemented with online teaching and online lectures in the form of videos. Students then went to class to discuss what they had seen or read.
  • Inquiry-based teaching and learning: More capable students were given more challenging tasks to complete, thus providing time to help their weaker peers.

Dr Angaama said computer-based and online learning, as well as modern technology, recurred as a major theme in the articles.

To round off the research presentation, Dr Jacobs told the CoP delegates that the scoping phase was now completed. “Any gaps in terms of the database we could use have been identified.” He said what they now needed was to:

  • Identify intervention success stories from the themes
  • Expand the search of these themes (systematic review is possible down the line)
  • Consider possible projects arising out of the scoping phase for 2023.

Quoting the multi-faceted approach of the Engelbrecht and Harding paper, he left delegates with this: “Are we brave enough as a CoP to target a number of groups of students across the country and do some sort of  huge intervention? Perhaps take a test class of 50 students in three or four places? That would be an exciting next phase.”

Summarising and contextualising the Symposium

Dr Padayachee said of the 5-6 September event: “There was a wealth of mathematics education expertise and experience at the symposium; it is through such engagement that we get to answer the many mathematics questions that exist in our community.” One controversial conversation held during the symposium asked whether maths should be taught in the vernacular. It raised questions that would need to be considered, she said.

Symposium presentations had included those on Creative and Critical Thinking in Mathematics, which, Dr Padayachee said: “we have all pondered the implementation of in our courses – to unlock conceptual understanding.” There was also a presentation on Thinking Courses in mathematics, now in the planning phase but to be implemented in 2023. She said the symposium had also given a platform to graduate teaching assistants “who we can all learn from, as entry-level academics. It was a wonderful way of professionalising teaching assistants,” she told CoP delegates.

Speaking of the pandemic period, Dr Padayachee said “we’ve had a problematic two years. But the challenges have meant that some of us have also gained incredible insights into how to use technology that best suits our students at our institutions in our particular contexts.” She said she hoped that connecting at the Symposium would lead to collaborations – including research collaborations across institutions.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa