Academics and educational organisations are concerned about the consequences of low maths literacy rates among science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students at university.
“We have to spend a lot of time on students who are admitted to the uni, but don’t have a good understanding of maths,” Director of the Maths and Science Study Centre at UTS Mary Coupland said.
Dr Coupland is concerned that students are selecting subjects in high school that solely benefit the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) attained at the completion of a student’s HSC.
She suspects that students are choosing general maths to earn higher marks, which gives the student a better ATAR than if they picked two-unit maths.
“…but when they [students] come to STEM subjects, they don’t have the level of maths needed.”
“If they have the opportunity in school and choose an easier subject…it’ll take them longer to get through their uni degree, because they’ll have to do foundational maths,” she said.
CEO of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), Stephen Bartos, also believes ATAR is an issue.
“The ATAR works against learning.”
“It [ATAR] encourages maximising the score and distorts learning, which affects good learning.”
The University of Sydney (USyd) will be implementing mathematics pre-requisites for some STEM degrees next year.
According to Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education at USyd, Professor Pip Pattison the change is to “ensure success.”
Most degrees had HSC-level mathematics (or equivalent) listed as assumed knowledge at USyd, and the “vast majority of students [in the course]…had this required level of mathematical background,” Prof Pattison said.
Students that lacked the assumed mathematical knowledge struggled.
“We had clear evidence that students were more often failing to succeed in those courses,” Prof Pattison said.
Mr Bartos said change is being implemented.
“It is a matter that Commonwealth, State and Territory ministers are aware of, there are various initiatives in place.”
One of the programs in place is the Let’s Count program, run by the Smith Family. Let’s Count focuses on young children and changing attitudes toward maths.
National Lead Facilitator for Let’s Count Deb Ryan said the program aimed to dispel negative feelings of maths so "kids have a more positive disposition towards maths”.
“We want to break barriers early…for an open mind in maths classes.”