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Tackling the Mathematics Problem

An Abridged Summary

Excerpts from "Tackling the Mathematics Problem," a British report on problems relating to the mathematical preparation of entrants to university courses commissioned jointly by the London Mathematical Society, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and the Royal Statistical Society. A special Preface to the report was prepared for EXTEND readers by Geoffrey Howson, Chairman of the committee that wrote the report. The full text of the report is available on-line, or in TeX by anonymous ftp.)

There is unprecedented concern among academics about the decline in the mathematical preparedness of those entering undergraduate courses in science and engineering. ... While we acknowledge that such a change is, in part, due to the greater numbers now entering higher education, and to the increasing number of options available to students with good grades in mathematics, this does not begin to explain the deficiencies that are being observed.

Mathematics, science, and engineering departments appear unanimous in their perception of a qualitative change in the mathematical preparedness of incoming students.

It is important to try to achieve some sort of consensus among professionals--academics in mathematics, science and engineering, teachers in schools and colleges, educationalists and administrators--as to the way forward. We cannot expect complete agreement on the extent to which standards have changed. However, few would dispute the observations that:

  1. In recent years less emphasis has been placed on the acquisition of skills involving arithmetic, fractions, ratios, algebraic technique, and the basic geometry of triangles, lines and circles;
  2. All of these neglected topics are vital for further study in mathematics, science and engineering.
These two observations suggest strongly that we have paid insufficient attention to the effectiveness of the current curriculum for the mass of students with the potential for further study.

Recent changes in school mathematics may well have had advantages for some pupils, but they have not laid the necessary foundations to maintain the quantity and quality of mathematically competent school leavers and have greatly disadvantaged those who need to continue their mathematical training beyond school level.

Proposals for Discussion:

[The full text of the report is available on-line.]

To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here if your Web browser is set up for e-mail.

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Last Update: 03/07/96