Language is fundamental, but is not always the only enabler for university mathematics success 

Published On: 23 August 2023|

Results from research into engineering mathematics of students in the University of Cape Town’s Engineering Extended Programme showed that female students (58.6%) outperformed their male peers (54.8%). They also showed that English second language students (57.4%) outperformed English home language students (54.5%).

These were some of the key findings of a paper co-authored by speaker, Dr Anita Campbell (below), Academic Support Programme for Engineering at UCT, Professor Pragashni Padayachee Senior Lecturer: Mathematics in the same programme and Dr Precious Mudavanhu, Centre for Educational Assessments.

Dr Campbell was speaking to the topic Linkages between Language and Performance in Engineering Mathematics at the first joint colloquium of three Universities South Africa’s Communities of Practice (CoP) held in Stellenbosch last week. The participants had been drawn from the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (CoP TLM) and the Education Deans’ Forum (EDF).

Factors influencing performance in calculus

Using interactive technology, Dr Campbell invited the senior academics to respond to a question she posed on What are some of the key factors that influence student performance in calculus? Audience responses included: abstract vocabulary; real-life application; practice; language of calculus; fear of maths; challenges in understanding the question; notion of limit; not taught the thinking processes needed to conceptualise calculus; understanding and practice; Toegang tot bronne, which translates to access to resources.

The academic said she had taught calculus for all of her teaching career and was a first-year maths specialist. At UCT, she teaches engineering students who are in an extended degree programme. “They have failed before they land up with me. I teach psychology– which is where my research has landed up. Mostly, these students need to be repaired from the damage and traumatisation they suffer from failing after being top achievers in maths.”

As part of the research, the scholars were interested in what they could tell from the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs) in their programme. They looked at five years’ worth of data concerning 10 cohorts from 2015 to 2019. “We wanted to analyse what we could see from patterns in the NBT results as well as how they perform through the courses.” The academics were also working from a hypothesis that students who get less than 60% for the first or second of the three calculus semester courses that engineering students have to do, are bound to struggle.

Summarising their study findings (on key factors influencing student performance in calculus), Dr Campbell said:

  • The data analysis revealed results of the academic literacy subdomains from the NBTs as being significant.
  • A lack of problem-solving skills really holds back calculus students. “The problem is that students can still get 90% because it’s only 5% of the matric exam whereas problem solving at university counts for about 80% of the assessment.”
  • Student beliefs and growth mindsets were found to be significant factors.
  • Mastering complex and new ideas in a limited time was found to be a challenge.

Another question, What are some of the challenges that under-represented students in engineering mathematics face? — yielded findings including:

  • A lack of academic preparation
  • Inadequate academic literacy skills
  • A lack of exposure to mathematical discourse
  • Socio-economic and educational barriers:
  1. Financial constraints
  2. Limited access to educational resources
  3. Discrimination

Their sample was 731 extended curriculum engineering mathematics students excluding non-South Africans, students who had not written NBTs and those who had different matric results. The sample were students attempting calculus 3 for the first time between 2015 and 2019.

She said in their analysis they used education reformer, Eva Moskowitz’s framework for academic literacy, which looks at maths education from a socio-cultural perspective and also looks at potential for progress rather than what is wrong with the people studying it. The framework defines academic literacy as a three stranded, intertwined combination of mathematical proficiency, mathematical practices and mathematical discourse.

Significantly, the results showed that female students (58.6%) outperformed male students (54.8%); English second language students (57.4%) outperformed English home language students (54.5%) and high performers in Calculus 1 & 2 also performed highly in Calculus 3.

She showed a ‘relative importance graph’ that represented the three strands of the NBTs, Maths, academic literacy and quantitative literacy. The graph filters out what is most predictive of the calculus 3 cohort, overall.

“When we funnelled the results and looked at the students who failed, the maths was still the biggest predictor of what would be in this cohort of students. But quantitative literacy was now second and almost tied with academic literacy.” However, she warned about reading too much into such graphs as they only showed correlations and had a small predictive power. Relative importance needed good data.

Summarising how universities could provide more targeted instruction to develop student’s academic literacy, particularly in first-year mathematics courses, Dr Campbell listed a host of criteria:

  • Fostering a culture of academic literacy by promoting the importance of academic literacy skills and providing resources to support their development: workshops, online resources, peer support groups.
  • Providing targeted support to students identified as having weaker academic literacy skills. This could include additional workshops, tutoring, one-on-one support.
  • Using formative assessments to identify areas where students need additional support in developing their academic skills. This can help lecturers provide targeted feedback and support to students.
  • Providing professional development for instructors to help them integrate academic literacy into their teaching practice. This can include training on how to design course materials and assessments that target academic literacy skills.
  • Designing mathematics course materials and assessments that explicitly target the development of academic literacy skills.


Professor Emmanuel Mfanafuthi Mgqwashu (left), Director: Faculty Teaching and Support at North-West University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning: “Notions of academic literacy have been communicated as though those who are supposed to receive it have some kind of deficit and they need to be helped – very patronising – and as if there are no literacies from where they come. So, to what extent are all the attempts that have been presented decidedly made explicit to students that they already have literacies from which they can leap as opposed to “poor you; we are here to help you.”

Dr Campbell: I was not really thinking of my audience but of myself, and my own AL deficiencies which have spurred this interest in the research. We try hard to allow students to use language. We get tutors who can speak multiple languages. We do a lot of work around white boards where students work in groups, where they can switch and translanguage.

So, I consider myself curious about how I can further develop myself. I sometimes think of my colleagues in a deficient way so thank you for that warning. I will try and improve on that.

I want to share a story that is relevant to this discussion about language. An engineering student is leaving UCT and engineering because in an intense group work session she was feeling left out because people spoke in a language she did not understand. Perhaps she did not have enough cultural knowledge of how to engage in a way that did not lead to group members excluding her. This high performing student is now a loss to engineering.

We need to create an environment allowing everyone to use their language and do that in a way that is not going to push others away. Socialising people is hard.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.