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South African students not prepared for university maths


Gaps in understanding result in high failure and dropout rates

South African students transitioning from high school to university face a “significant” learning gap when tackling mathematics as part of engineering and science degrees, a study has found.

“This results in high failure and attrition rates, and low throughputs at universities,” said Ekaterina Rzyankina, a qualitative data analyst at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), who worked on the study.

The study, which has not yet been published, explored how students fare when transitioning from high school to university mathematics, with the aim to inform university support programmes so they can better fill the gaps.

Rzyankina was speaking on 19 April at a meeting of the Universities South Africa’s Teaching and Learning of Mathematics Community of Practice.

Frikkie George, an academic literacy lecturer at CPUT who led the study, told the meeting that university students were found to lack the higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills required to solve mathematics problems.

Literacy levels were insufficient too. High school leavers generally lacked the reading and comprehension skills to understand the problems they were asked to solve, and many could not understand the vocabulary used in questions.

George said the study’s results suggest that university maths training should focus on core skills while limiting specialist maths instruction to a few areas that are directly relevant to student’s fields of study. Students must also be made aware of the gaps in their knowledge, he added.

A second phase of the study will survey lecturers and students to seek their opinions on how mathematics is taught.