Internet teens failing math
September 06, 2009
So many Ontario teens are bombing university math now that there is no Grade 13, universities are scrambling to boost students’ skills before they arrive.
Alarmed at how weak high school grads seem in basic algebra – on some campuses up to 50 per cent fail or quit first-year math – a growing number of universities sent out surprise math packages this summer to incoming students to “clear out the cobwebs” and give emergency help to those who need it.
“By and large, students are ill-prepared, and they get a rude awakening because up to 50 per cent either fail or drop math,” said math professor Peter Gibson of York University, which has launched a task force to find ways to keep freshmen from flunking math.
McMaster University also is sponsoring research into the problem.
Math profs across the province blame a four-year high school program that leaves little time for mastering basics, and a culture unwilling to push young people to drill in necessary academic skills.
Many, like McMaster professor Miroslav Lovric, also blame the i-generation’s frantic multi-tasking for dissipating their powers of concentration.
“It’s easy to blame the school system, but sometimes the students just don’t work hard enough,” said Lovric, who is overseeing the study into why 40 to 50 per cent of post-secondary students fail or drop first-year math.
Lovric’s summer package of math problems for incoming students has become so popular across Ontario that he will publish it in book format in January.
“We live in a world with too many distractions. Math takes focus.”
This may be the first generation of university students raised on the Internet, said Lovric, “so they’ve been multitasking and surfing the Web since they were 4.
“But now I see them doing their math homework on their laptops while downloading movies and talking on Facebook.
“So it’s not necessarily that they can’t do the math – but it’s not focused work.”
For the first time, York sent incoming math students an optional online quiz with special web help for stumbling blocks like trigonometry. (Next year, the quiz may be mandatory.) It also offered weak students a free one-week catch-up course on campus.
The University of Toronto has created four “flavours” of calculus for different levels of students – from business majors (the easiest) to “killer calculus” (for math brains).
“We’ve certainly seen a change since the end of the five-year program,” said Kumar Murty, head of the U of T math department. “We know high school students are not as prepared as they used to be. Math takes time to sink in.”
The U of T offers a $600 summer course for incoming students who want more prep.
A summer math test is already mandatory at Wilfrid Laurier University, where up to 30 per cent of first-year math students fail or drop the course, said department head David Vaughan.
Those who fared poorly on the test were offered a $150 three-week course called “tri-a-ge” for trigonometry, algebra and geometry.
“The weak link is absolutely algebra. Some think 2x + x equals 2x squared,” said Vaughan.
“High schools should scrap the half-course they offer in calculus and spend more time teaching students how to make fewer algebra mistakes.”
Laurier is considering steering most math students into a full-year math course – half a credit more than they need – to build in time for high school review.
School boards say they’ve heard universities’ concerns but believe they are starting to see number savvy grow.
“Quite frankly, we recognize our students’ results in math are not where we’d like to see them, but with teachers sharing ideas on how to make math more relevant, it’s paying dividends I think universities will soon see,” said Christopher Usih, superintendent for student success for the Toronto District School Board.
Deanna Jarvis of Etobicoke is one of 2,700 first-year students at the University of Guelph who were mailed nine hours of math problems this summer in a breezy new kit called “MP3 – math post-secondary preparation package.”
“It was so helpful to get those problems in the mail the first week of August and see where your weak spots are. I struggled a little with the trigonometry,” said Jarvis, 18, who needs math for the commerce program she’s entering.
Guelph professor Jack Weiner, who oversaw the new mail-out kit, said every August he gets emails from incoming students seized by math anxiety, so he figured “why not offer them a tool to see whether they should start now to get extra help?” He was delighted that 500 students used the answer website in the first two weeks.
One in a series on hot topics in education