Project Maths not to blame for declining results in third-level maths, experts clarify

9 Jun 2015

The suggestion that Project Maths was causing a decline in students’ readiness for third-level mathematics has been refuted by two experts in the area.

The suggestion was made in The Irish Times this morning.

A recent study, co-authored by Dr Fiona Faulkner, DIT, and Dr Páraic Treacy, UL, did highlight the increasing deficiencies in the abilities of mathematics students entering third-level education.

However, what the study didn’t do, according to Dr Faulkner, who spoke to, is put the blame for that on Project Maths.

“Some of the declines coincided with Project Maths, but we weren’t saying that, exclusively, Project Maths is to blame.”

First-year students not prepared for challenges of third level

The study was based on the results of entry tests given to all first-year students entering into science and tech courses at UL over the past 17 years. These results show that, between the years of 2003 and 2013, the fail rate of first-year UL students who had earned a D in higher level maths in the Leaving Cert rose from 12pc to more than 40pc.

Dr Faulkner says that, while you could say it’s a factor, to put all the blame at the feet of Project Maths is reductive. The changing profile of the average student, the new curriculum, and resistance in places to implementing that curriculum, may all play a part in declining capabilities.

Another possibility is that the UL test simply no longer reflects the requirements of the current curriculum, something Dr Faulkner readily admitted.

Project Maths too new to judge

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, UCD, is a proponent of Project Maths and was involved in devising it.

Speaking to Newstalk this morning, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin acknowledged the rigorousness of the UL study, but also questioned the conclusions The Irish Times drew from it.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin argued that “we shouldn’t be so quick to jump on a criticism bus”. As Project Maths has only been taught for five years and has only been examined for the last three, it cannot be held responsible for a 10-year-long decline.

Simply put, when it comes to Project Maths’ success or failure, it’s just too early to tell.

A reversal of fortunes

In fact, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she hopes that Project Maths will be responsible for the reversal of that decline.

Dr Faulkner isn’t so sure. When asked if the study performed by Dr Treacy and herself backed up reports that Irish students don’t measure up to their global counterparts, she replied in part, “I think that we are certainly not improving. Project Maths hasn’t made any improvements so far, anyway. That’s not to say it’s caused the decline, but it hasn’t stopped the existing decline.”

She does, however, counsel patience with the new curriculum. While it’s tough, she says, for the students currently going through the system who aren’t necessarily getting the best experience of Project Maths, she thinks that it will produce the desired results in the long run:

“We will see the desired positive changes in students’ ability to tackle problems that they’re not familiar with, in contexts they’re not familiar with. They won’t be so routine and practiced – there will be real understanding there.”

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin stands by the idea behind Project Maths – to take a step away from Ireland’s historical relationship with rote learning and move towards a deeper understanding of the subject: “There’s still an emphasis needed on students building their skills.”

However, she is not blind to issues with the Project Maths syllabus, and said she would recommend a few tweaks, including a renewed emphasis on calculus and less of a focus on probability, to ensure that third-level students have a grounding in, and understanding of, material relevant to their studies.

A question of standards

While Project Maths is grabbing most of the attention when it comes to coverage of this study, what should perhaps be more troubling to educators is the revelation that marking may have become kinder.

The standard of work now receiving a B grade at higher level is equivalent to that which would have earned a C 10 years ago, and a C today is, correspondingly, equivalent to what used to be a D.

Dr Faulkner hesitates to attribute that solely to soft marking, though she admits it’s a likely contributing factor. In fact, she says, performance and results in the Leaving Cert remain the best indicator of performance at third level.

She wonders if grade discrepancies are a result of changing values in education:

“It might be that a certain type of skill was more valued back then – procedure and routine and practice – whereas, now, are we rewarding problem solving, interpretation and understanding a bit more?”

With stories of Irish graduates’ less than stellar place in the global hierarchy dominating the headlines in recent years, this damning piece of information certainly suggests that it’s time for us to take a closer look at our education system to ensure that Ireland stays on par with leading countries.

Struggling student image, via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin
By Kirsty Tobin

Kirsty Tobin served as careers editor of Silicon Republic from 2015 up to August 2017. When she was younger, she had a dream where she started and won a fight with a T-Rex, so she’s pretty sure she kicked butt at this, too. Passions include eating all the cake, watching more TV than is healthy and sassy comebacks.

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