Mathematics Support in Higher Education


“I’m studying … at university.  I didn’t realise I would have to do some maths as part of the course.  I haven’t done any maths since GCSE and I hated it then.”  You can fill in the blanks with one of a wide range of subjects from Business Studies to Biology, from Politics to Nursing.

Many students start university with a low opinion of mathematics and an even lower opinion of their mathematical abilities.  Mathematics support sets out to seek to remedy both these issues.

The most common form of mathematics support is the Drop-In Centre.  A drop-in centre is a staffed location (ideally a dedicated space) where students can turn up (drop in) at times that suit them.  They come to seek help with problems they are encountering in the study of mathematics (which in this context includes statistics and data analysis) as part of their degree. 

Drop-in centres usually provide a selection of learning resources, books, handouts, online quizzes, etc.  But by far the most valued resource in a drop-in centre is the member of staff.   Staff who are willing to sit down and work one-to-one with a student, to explore their difficulties and to help them to believe that ‘they can do it’.  Lack of confidence and low mathematical self-esteem are the biggest problems that mathematics support centre staff try to solve.   

The aim of drop-in centres is to be welcoming, friendly and, most important of all, non-judgemental places to learn. A basic mantra in drop-in centres is ‘No question is too basic to ask’. 

Many disciplines are becoming ever more quantitative.  In the dim and distant past when I was at school, biology was the science you chose to study if you didn’t like maths.  But that’s no longer the case.  Mathematical models and statistical methods are a fundamental part of the biosciences at higher levels.  The social sciences used to be about writing essays.  But today, those essays often need to include an analysis of one data set or another.  Although the mathematics used is not very advanced, all nursing students have to learn how to carry out drug calculations – and we all have a vested interest in making sure that they have the skills to get these calculations right, one hundred per cent of the time.

One of the first mathematics support centres was established at Coventry Polytechnic in 1991 – it was called the BP Mathematics Centre.  It was set up with funding from the oil company BP – the chairs in the Centre were green with yellow cushions.  Originally the Centre was targeted at undergraduate engineers, particularly those entering with vocational qualifications.  Experience showed that the mathematical element of their course was make or break for many (and all too often it was break). 

The success of the Centre meant that other subjects wanted to use it too and so its remit expanded to cover all subjects.  Some other institutions, who were facing similar problems, saw that this was a good idea and set up their own centres. 

In 2005, HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council) designated sigma (a collaboration between Loughborough and Coventry Universities) as a Centre for Excellence in University-wide mathematics and statistics support.  With Centre for Excellence status, and the generous funding that went with it, sigma began to change the experience of students across the higher education sector.  By providing expertise, resources and most important of all, matched funding, sigma has helped over 40 higher education providers set up their own mathematics support provision.

The website mathcentre has been established as an online mathematics support centre.  Although it cannot provide the face-to-face tuition of a drop-in centre, it provides just about everything else.  It has a huge (and continuously growing) library of resources: for students, such things as teach yourself guides, short handouts, online quizzes, videos and, for staff, guides to setting up and running mathematics support centres.  All the resources on the website are freely available to everyone – anywhere in the world.

Although mathematics support originated from a desire to help students who were in danger of failing, this has changed over the years.  Such students remain a key clientele for drop-in centres.  But you don’t have to be struggling to go along.  Many of the students who drop-in are students who are doing well and want to do even better.  

And many of the students who visit are actually taking mathematics degrees.   It seems that some mathematics students find it easier to ask questions in the safety of a drop-in centre than in the glare of their fellow students in a large lecture theatre.  The collaborative approach to learning that drop-in centres promote also resonates with many mathematics undergraduates who do not conform to the stereotypical norm of mathematicians as anti-social loners.

Some would say that in an ideal world mathematics support would not be needed.  Students would arrive at university with all the mathematical skills that they need.  And the confidence to use those skills.  The reality is that, at present, this is not the case.  We hope that Core Maths will help, by keeping more students studying maths for longer.  But it will take some time for this initiative to make a significant impact, and something tells me that whilst it may improve the situation it is not going to remove entirely the need for maths support. 

Universities have a responsibility to all the students they recruit, to give them every chance to succeed.  If a university has been willing to admit a student, then it cannot complain that he/she is not good enough for the course.  If the course is too hard for them, then the university has to help them.  That’s what maths support has been doing for the last 25 years or more.  And what it will continue to do for the next 25 years and more.

If you want to find out more about mathematics support in universities then visit the sigma network website.

By Duncan Lawson, Newman University