Projects that explore experience of first year mathematics students unpacked

Published On: 6 May 2022|

Early findings of two research projects being undertaken to improve the teaching and learning experience of first year students in mathematics, have exposed problem areas that need to be addressed. Progress reports on the projects, commissioned by the Teaching and Learning Mathematics (TLM) Community of Practice (CoP), were given to delegates at the first meeting of 2022.

Dr Mark Jacobs, Senior Lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and his team are looking into the First Year Mathematics experience in Higher Education Institutions in South Africa. Professor Vimolan Mudaly, Deputy Academic leader: Maths and Tech Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) led a team researching Mathematics Teaching Practice.

Giving feedback, Dr Jacobs said early research findings highlighted a gap between high school and university.  He noted, too, a concern that the scope of his project was too wide — putting this out for consideration to members of the CoP.
Professor Mudaly found that assessments by tutors and mentors of pre-service teachers was difficult as there was no clarity around scoring. This, he said, reinforced the need to implement a uniform system that would work well in South Africa.

Both project teams presented the methodology they were using to collect data.

Project One

Dr Jacob’s team’s activities included collecting and reviewing articles for background and the main study. A researcher on this team, UKZN-based Dr Daniel Angaama, said he was doing this by searching on the internet and downloading articles on first-year mathematics by way of preparing a background. He told the CoP: “We want to focus on the systematic review of publications on the first-year experience in South Africa in particular.”

The aim of the research, he added, is to get a ‘comprehensive and unbiased review’ of what is going on in first year undergraduate classrooms in South Africa.

Using literature helped minimise bias as results were more generalised and did not need ethical clearance as they did not deal with human beings or animals.

However, this system was dramatically more time consuming than traditional reviews, Angaama admitted.

Themes emerging from Project One:

  • The gulf between high school and university.
  • The comparison of different school curricula. “We are still getting to this to see what universities are doing in terms of first year teaching.”
  • The many factors affecting first year performance.
  • What technology is used? Does it improve mathematics learning? (Jacobs said CPUT used a system called WebAssign.)
  • Differences between systematic reviews.

Regarding the analysis of journals and articles from local journals, Jacobs said they were looking at how wide this research should go and exploring whether the scope should be reduced.

Noting that pandemic-related changes would have a bearing on the ongoing investigations, TLM CoP Chairperson, Dr Pragashni Padayachee, who is a Senior Lecturer: of Mathematics; at Academic Support Programme for Engineering (ASPECT) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), said she wondered whether the team was considering using grey literature or conference proceedings “where some of the innovations people discovered and used in the mathematics classroom would be represented?” Angaama said they would include everything to get a full picture.

Jacobs said the current process was chosen because the pandemic travel ban allowed no in-person interaction.

“Now things are more normalised we need to relook at the pre-CoVID proposal.”

Advisory Committee Member weighs in

Advisory Committee Member, Dr Rina Durandt, from the University of Johannesburg’s Mathematics Education Department, pointed out that most of the literature focused on the transition to university; students’ success rate and the role of technology. Combining the South African experience to inform the teaching and learning of mathematics locally seemed promising, she said, especially after the pandemic.


Regarding the variety of Project One aspects – interventions, lecturer and student profiles, institutional support and the experience of role players – Durandt asked:

  • What will be investigated? Can they be grouped in clusters?
  • How will you distil these aspects?
  • Is research based solely on a literature review?
  • What will the time frame be for that review? (5 years? 10 years?)
  • Regarding the systematic review process: will you only look at particular journals? Which ones?
  • How long should Project One take? What resources are needed?
  • Could this be a pilot project that other institutions can implement?
  • A mixed method approach is suitable to collect rich data. What data collection instruments will you use to collect qualitative and quantitative data?”

Durandt urged CoP members to share their ideas and asked the team to provide guidelines on specific aspects they want to include in the research project.

“Think ahead about the data collection instruments and perhaps also the methods of analysis. What would you really like to see at the end of the study? Sometimes, if we have instruments in mind, it helps us identify aspects we’d like to investigate.”

Angaame said: “I think the the project should be limited to guidelines and boundaries determined by the research team.”  Jacobs said the team would provide clarity, put timelines to the project and feed that back to the group.

Project Two

Professor Mudaly introduced his project saying: “We are re-looking at the possibilities for teaching practice, especially for pre-service teachers who are mathematics students.”  Because of a desperate need for systems in learning programmes, Project Two was investigating a possible teaching practice programme that would lead into 4IR.

Mudaly said: “We are surrounded by technology. KZN had its third disaster in three years (CoVID, riots and floods) which led to the closure of schools and universities for extended periods of time. We will see more of this in the future and need to find ways of ensuring teaching practice can continue; where students can be evaluated and assessed.”

Data collection methodology

Team researcher, Sebastian Sanjigadu (UKZN Education Department) took the CoP through the data collection processes being employed. This included the development of a survey document using a Google form, informed by the department of Higher Education and how it perceives word integrated learning programmes.

That would form the basis of what they look for and provide a standard to work from.

The team:

  • Developed and reviewed participation invitation letters (these will be sent to institutions that offer degrees or post-graduate degree in education).
  • Developed narrative guidelines using an Excel data collection tool (the narrative from each institution will feed in, providing a form of comparative analysis at all institutions).

To date,10 narratives have been completed along with a log of teachers and 20 South African teaching practice co-ordinators. (Sanjigadu said they would follow the same processes for some international institutions.) He said that since the initial stage of data collection is based on information that is in the public domain – university handbooks (a trusted source) and websites – no ethical clearance was needed at this point.

The Narrative

Each institution’s narrative will reveal an outline of the curriculum offered: how it works and who assesses it. Sanjigadu said in this way, information – though it may not be detailed enough or verifiable – would provide a snapshot for each institution.

The team focused on how resources are leveraged and how the work integrated learning programme and the experience chain has been adapted to 4IR.

The researcher said they had found valuable information about new CoVID related adaptions, like the use of Zoom and virtual platforms. He used as an example an online system, Eduplace, where students could select schools, submit assessment tasks and log in queries.  “Before CoVID, this was done face-to-face, on campus, in queues waiting to consult someone from the teaching practice.” He said that a template for assessment – the lesson observation report – was included in the narrative or attached as a supporting document.

So far, the narratives of ten institutions have been processed. The aim is to include all institutions.  Sanjigadu appealed to the CoP: “We need your help getting teaching practice co-ordinators’ information from your networks. This is necessary for the completion of the narratives at each institution.”

The changing face of teaching practice

The project is also looking at how teaching practice processes have evolved during CoVID-19.  Querying why these processes only have evolved because of the pandemic, Sanjigadu asked: “Was there not a need for this prior to CoVID-19?”

He added that the study would review grey literature – new and unpublished information that may not be included on the website or in handbooks.

Researchers came across a host of new innovations during their institutional narrative investigation. Examples of these included:

  • The introduction of webinar rooms where lessons are live-streamed;
  • Online classrooms where students present virtually to a group of teaching practice co-ordinators – where they are also assessed.
  • Soft copy submissions – programmes created so students can upload lesson plans and video recordings of their lessons to avoid in person contact.
  • ICT labs where learners can sit in front of a computer and present the lesson – with resources.”

Mudaly said this was the first basic data-collecting phase. To facilitate speedy ethical clearance, he asked if Universities South Africa could provide a letter showing support of the project by all universities. This would do away with the need for individual ethics clearance letters.

Response to Project Two

The Advisory Committee member for this project was Professor Anil Kanjee, Tshwane University of Technology research professor and co-ordinator of the post-graduate and research programme in the department of Primary Education.

He said this was an ambitious, critical study as it looked at an area of initial teacher education that has little available detail, having “avoided being researched”.

Saying research in teacher practice was new, he commended the study’s inclusion of all institutions; its emphasis on 4IR and its investigation of international practice.

Sharing the narrative document – to teacher educators, teaching practice co-ordinators and decision makers in initial teacher education programmes – would have enormous impact, Kanjee said.

This was important because:

  • Having access to what people at other universities are doing – the how and why – was important.
  • How students are assessed during teaching practice; what instruments are used and how valuable these are will all be useful.

Kanjee’s suggestions:

  • Website information is often inaccurate. Researchers could look at detail-rich specific course content and teaching practice study guides that are more updated and relevant.
  • Teaching practice journals contain detailed information that would serve this study well.
  • Greater student involvement could be useful.
  • Issue of feedback needs expansion: How are students assessed? How is feedback provided? When is it provided? What is the frequency and to what extent is this proving useful to students?


Kabelo Chuene, Associate Professor from the University of Limpopo, raised a “value for money” issue saying better use of 4IR would save the cost each institution spent on evaluators visiting schools. She proposed that USAf be contacted for the (easily obtained) names of co-ordinators and suggested the offices of Deputy Vice Chancellors as a source.

Regarding the sharing of the narratives of Higher Education Institutions, and the aspect of ethical clearance, she said (if the meeting agreed) this could be put into a report and officially distributed through USAf channels.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa