Measures that can be taken to improve first year students’ mathematics experience

Published On: 6 May 2022|

First year mathematics students are often in much need of guidance and support. That is why student experience was the focus of the Diagnostic Mathematics Information for Students Retention and Success Project, (DMISRS), convened in 2018.

The purpose of DMISRS was explained 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.”

Mathematics Research Lead in the University of Cape Town’s Academic Support Programme for Engineering in Cape Town (ASPECT), Ms Tatiana Sango, was speaking at the first Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM) Communities of Practice (CoP) of 2022, held virtually. In her presentation to members representing all public universities, she said they had looked at the diagnostic information that had been collected over three years – specifically with the National Senior Certificate (NSC) and National Benchmark Test (NBT) mathematics performance. She said reports show problems and critical skills.

She told the CoP they were planning an NBT mathematics review diagnostics workshop in response to all the diagnostic data that was available. The available information on NBT and NSC performance would inform teaching and learning in first year mathematics.  Noting that the NBT moved online during the pandemic and saying she did not foresee this changing for years to come, she said they would start offering paper sessions for the NBTs.

The CAMP Initiative: contributing to the student experience

Sango: “What the information is telling us is that we need to focus on students; proficiency has dropped substantially.” There had been an increase in the number of students who fell into the ‘basic’ category she said.  Maths performance levels across different faculties or intended faculties of studies painted the same picture.

She pointed out that students studying science and mathematics performed better. However, across all the different faculties and the intended faculties of studies, mathematics performance “is really worrying”.  She said: “It indicates that we need to engage the students before they come to us – or as they come to us. We need to support them, we need to focus on their performance, we need to shift that bias especially from the basic category.  “As we focus on the performance, the question of analysing the sub domain scores and performances in mathematics is important.”

In 2022, she said, all the older sub domains were sitting below 40%.  “That is a major concern. Looking at this picture, the question of NBT support becomes critical.  The workshop we’re planning prior to the symposium in September this year will review the diagnostic information. We’d like to zoom in on the sub domain performances and look at the most critical skills that potentially impact first year mathematics learning and ultimately the teaching of first year mathematics.”

Sango said an analysis of multiple NBT test papers would uncover performance indicators across different sub domains and help find critical information about what is possible for impact making change.  Sango: “Producing the NBT mathematics report – hopefully, together with the NSC report – will inform strategies for student support in first year.”

While information on pass and failure rates was important, so too was finding ways to use that to impact performance, change student experiences and impact their learning. Sango said that forced by the pandemic, NBT moved online. “That, in itself, was a push for digital transformation that, before CoVID, had been slow at schools and universities.  High stakes assessment shows there was a lot of hesitancy around moving online, for security reasons, yes, but also because of scepticism about the kind of experience online.”

However, the team had come up with creative solutions to make online manageable, and it worked.

Sango added that before it was known that NBTs would be optional for university entrance – “we’d already announced that we would be delivering online. Over 16000 candidates had registered to sit their NBTs online.  They did not know whether it would be compulsory or optional, but there was a willingness to take the test online.”

She concluded that the move to digital environments did not put students off being in spaces that were not necessarily familiar. “I think this trend will continue and undoubtedly drive digital innovation in education. We will capitalise on lessons learnt during the pandemic when we create new solutions for the online engagement with our students.

“Perhaps online is better or different or easier – maybe not. Hopefully we will discover whatever that is, to bring our students closer to the experiences that we want them to have in first year mathematics.”

Benefits of the CAMP

Sango says the idea behind the CAMP initiative is to help students bridge gaps discovered through the data on NSCs and NBTs. “This will help aspiring learners to become more functional first year students. The CAMP initiative will be, to begin with, a blended learning programme for students with pre-recorded videos and live Zoom sessions.  Lecturers could drive the engagement; they could pose questions like, what is the one thing you wish your students knew when they came to your first-year mathematics class?

“Thinking out of the box, one could create several credits for a course they would like to take. Those credits might be small, but they create motivation for the students to engage in the learning material and ultimately impacts on our relationship with them as it builds their confidence.”  Sango said students have expectations when they apply for a particular course; they come to those choices with certain motivations. “We’d like them to share those, so we learn from them. Our thinking is that students can also create their own content: What is one thing you wish your lecturer knew about you when you joined their class?”

The Camp, she said, would create the environment where the focus would be on critical mathematical concepts and learning strategies.  It would provide a platform for where to go to find answers and solutions. “The Camp curriculum will have numerous activities and projects students can participate in; discussions, interviews, QnAs and so on. That’s the thinking behind building the Camp Curriculum.”

This, Sango said, would create opportunities for engagement in research components to inform further development of student-centred mathematics design.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa