First year in maths

Mathematics is taught in universities in most science and engineering degrees in the first year, to provide students with the foundation skills they need to progress through their degree. These first year mathematics subjects are an important transition point where students are introduced to complex mathematical concepts that are essential for science, commerce, engineering and more.

However teaching mathematics in first year presents many challenges due, in part, to the diversity of student’s backgrounds in mathematics and the difficulties many experience in studying university mathematics.

The First Year in Maths (FYiMaths) project team is looking at this issue because it is a key concern for the academics who teach first year mathematics. A main focus of the project is how best to support academics that coordinate subjects and programs in first year mathematics, as it is a role that is significantly different from the traditional role of a teaching and research academic.

So far the project team has interviewed mathematicians at universities across the country and found a high level of concern that the maths skills of students entering degrees in science and engineering are lower than required. Many universities are attempting to address this with diagnostic testing, bridging programs, curriculum renewal and provision of maths support centers.

The reasons students don’t have the required mathematics preparation for these degree programs is due to a range of factors, including a general confusion about the meaning of ‘assumed knowledge’ entry requirements for mathematics subjects and decreasing numbers of students studying advanced mathematics in the final years of school. In most cases where mathematics is not a hard prerequisite, students are not excluded from selection on the basis of ‘assumed knowledge’ requirements.

At the recent National Forum on Assumed Knowledge in Maths, organized by the FYiMaths project and IISME, held at the University Sydney, academics from science and engineering disciplines, along with teachers, education specialists and policy makers considered the extent to which ‘assumed knowledge’ impacts on student choices in Year 12.

They identified the importance of making connections between the secondary and tertiary sectors and that coordinated efforts are needed to address the mismatch occurring between the level of maths that students need to enter science and engineering programs at university and the level of maths they study. The forum showcased many examples of innovations in teaching that are helping students overcome deficiencies in their mathematical background.

The FYiMaths project is in the process of developing a range of resources and an improvement orientated network to facilitate greater information sharing and collaboration on common problems.

Mathematicians teaching in first year have a wealth of knowledge and expertise about the first year student experience and are keen to use this to improve the programs offered to students. It is hoped that by collaboration and building network relationships, fewer academic will feel isolated in their institutions and that as a sector universities can develop an approach that enhances the success of students in first year maths and beyond.

Joann Cattlin manages FYiMaths project, an Office of Learning and Teaching funded project involving the University of Melbourne, Curtin University, The University of Sydney and University of Adelaide. Read more: