Academics responsible for teaching undergraduate mathematics are generally in agreement about one key issue; the removal of mathematics prerequisites for key undergraduate degrees has created an enormous educational challenge.
In response to this relatively new issue, the University of Sydney announced that it would re-introduce the mathematics pre-requisites for students applying for degrees in science, engineering, commerce and IT.
It isn’t difficult to understand why the University of Sydney opted to re-instate the mathematics pre-requisites, however, will this approach improve the standard of mathematics education across the board? Will it materially increase competency in sectors that are heavily maths based?
Evidently, maintaining a high mathematics pre-requisite standard for entry into relevant university courses will enable lecturers to begin working on math problems of a higher calibre, at an earlier stage. However, whether this has any material bearing in the overall educational experience and competency in industry following graduation remains to be seen.
A student cannot be selected into a degree if they do not meet the relevant pre-requisites or an approved equivalent. Over the last tweet years, most universities have lowered or even removed entirely their mathematics pre-requisites, replacing them with less objective, more contemporary forms of assessment. What’s wrong with this approach? Generally, the other forms of assessment are unclear.
Further, the removal of mathematics pre-requites substantially de-values the standard of mathematics competency required for entry into university courses. Not having mathematics pre-requisites shifts the onus too far onto students to determine whether they are likely to succeed in their relevant course. The unfortunate consequence is that large number of students are enrolling in heavily maths based courses without the necessary background. This could also be a factor in terms of the recent trend which has seen a substantial decline in the number of students selecting maths courses as part of their high school and university entrance exams. Students are free to decide which subject to undertake as part of their ATAR, so as to maximise their potential score. This is often at odds with selecting subjects that best prepare students for their future career.
Further, there may be consequences for students who opt-out of mathematics subjects during year eleven and twelve. These consequences include being forced to undertake bridging courses and well as limiting available pathways. Students need to be educated about the consequence of their ATAR subject selection as early as grade nine. A lack of requisite background knowledge is one of the major causes of the high rate of failure amongst first year STEM university students. Students who enter university without the assumed knowledge in mathematics are statistically more likely to fail than those who completed the assumed knowledge in school. Even students who have completed bridging courses are not as likely to succeed as those who covered the requisite material in school. In summary, students need to select their year twelve units wisely and not be lured by the false economy of avoiding the most onerous mathematics units.
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