Bonus points for mathematics?

As many readers of this blog will know, for some time now the issue of how to persuade more Irish students to take Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate (Irish final school examinations) has been a topic of heated debate in Ireland. Part of the backdrop is that the number of those taking this option has been declining for some time, and according to an Irish Times report last summer is now below 20 per cent.

The key consequence of this trend is that the 80 per cent who have chosen not to pursue Higher Mathematics will be excluded from most science subjects at university, and this in turn will have a serious impact on our capacity to attract international investment. Some professional bodies have responded by urging the universities to offer bonus points for Leaving Certificate Mathematics, thereby providing an incentive for students. On the other hand, the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD – rather misunderstanding his role and powers in this regard – has indicated that he would not authorise such bonus points. Others, including some well-known academic commentators (including TCD’s Sean Barrett) argue that this should be a free market and that politicians and university leaders should not interfere: students should study whatever they want to, without inducements or pressures to do something different.

It may be worth noting that bonus points for mathematics have been applied in an equivalent setting in Australia.

I confess that I am one of those inclined to favour bonus points; but I am open to argument that this is wrong. My chief purpose in raising the issue here is to encourage a response from readers, as I am seeking to consider the arguments right now before contemplating further action.

For what it is worth, however, I do not believe that CAO points represent a ‘free market’, but rather a highly distorted one. I believe that the major cause that makes students turn away from mathematics is its perceived difficult nature, and I tend to think that we may need to compensate for this. I do however also accept that bonus points for mathematics may distort the CAO score if the student uses them to study something unrelated to maths: say, law. But there may be ways of addressing that.

And finally, what we are looking at here is a temporary expedient. The real solution, in my view, is to overhaul and apply radical changes (not excluding complete abolition) to the CAO points system. But that won’t happen overnight.

As I have said, comments on this would be very welcome.

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13 Comments on “Bonus points for mathematics?”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    As I have mentioned before, the answer is clearly to make maths easier, why should it be at a different standard, a different number of points per hour taught; but there should be a second, widely taught, subject of “further maths”.

    What is really needed is extra payments for maths teachers, and tighter control of who can teach maths.

  2. F de Londras Says:

    If students are not taking honours maths because it’s perceived as too difficult does this perhaps say something about other subjects that are widely taken at honours level? Honours subjects should be equally as difficult as one another. This does not mean that students would find them as easy or as difficult as one another. A student with a gift for a particular type of cognition might find languages and history easier than maths and science but that ought not to mean that they actually ARE easier. Some kind of consistency across the subjects in terms of difficulty level, taking into account the nature of the subjects and what they are supposed to educate students in (so for English, for example, we should not be expecting students to come out of it with an expert knowledge of King Lear but with an excellent level of interpretive skills and the ability to put a piece of work into context and assess its strengths, weaknesses, character development etc…).

    As for the question about bonus points themselves, I have no objection to them for relevant university entry. So, for example, I am not concerned by the idea of awarding bonus points for honours maths for entry to a course that requires extremely high levels of mathematical cognition and skill. I am not sure, however, that it makes sense in an ‘across the board’ kind of way. However, it should perhaps be noted that there is a de facto bonus points scheme for all honours subjects in any case with an A1 in pass subjects only being worth a C (if I remember correctly) in honours subjects, even though that A might display much greater skills and capacities than the C at honours level does.

    I wonder whether those who design the second level curriculum spend as much time on things like learning outcomes, obejctives, and attributes as we do at third level? It might be no harm to shift focus in teaching, learning and assessment a bit instead of thinking of ways to continue to ratchet up the pressure in a system that–in many ways–is quite broken already.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Bonus points are not the answer, a bonus to the Maths teachers is.
    If one handed say 3000E for every A1, overnight you would solve the problem. What we certainly do not want is for the idea to lodge into the minds of Intel ET AL that there is anything dumb about the system, eh.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    I am sympathetic to the idea of higher points for maths although not for the reasons usually given. So the argument usually given, as I read it, is that it will encourage students to study higher maths more. Well it would certainly increase the number studying to Leaving Cert level. The assumption seems to be that students will then forget to stop and will continue studying in higher numbers at 3rd level. Is this credible? If you gave points for doing ballet then, sure, they will turn up in their pumps but the idea that this will turn them into ballerinas [or ballerinos] seems far-fetched.
    A more convincing argument, to my mind, is that ability at mathematics is a better signal of underlying ability than ability at home economics (say). So our system is “meritocratic” in the sense that places are rationed and points are the currency by which places are rationed. I think there is evidence that LC maths scores are better predictors of how students do in university than other subjects & I don’t just mean at technical subject. A colleague of mine investigated this many years ago and found that students’ grades in English (at university) was more closely related to their maths grade than their English grade (at LC). I think a similar study was done by someone in UCC. Maybe this is because maths reflects a general problem solving ability and is less amenable to simply memorizing.

    Strategies to get better maths teachers, as suggested above, are probably worth investigating. I’m guessing that teachers unions would be apoplectic at the notion though.

  5. Paul Says:

    How about adding extra mathematics classes in secondry schools? There is a half-day every wednesday, why not have a 2 two hour tutorial available for free for all students, where the emphasis is on reviewing material and doing sample questions (as opposed to introducing new material).
    This would give students that extra time to keep up to speed. How about at school holidays, run a one day mathematics class, again to review covered material only. Lots of students would like to take higher level mathematics, but dont get enough 1 on 1 time.

    We have lots of university graduates who have done higher level mathematics currently not working and collecting the dole. Why not incentives these unemployed people to teach or tutor these classes? This would benefit the students and the tutors and the state.

    On a broader scale (and slightly outside the scope of this discussion); I can’t understand why the govt is giving money to unemployed people for nothing? There is so much work that could be done for the poor, elderly, disabled, disadvantaged. Why not mobilize everyone into giving even 10 hours a week to a local volunteer organization? I personally know lots of young people who are sitting around all week playing video games living with their parents. Surely there is something productive they could be doing in exchange for the dole? My idea, give full amount of the dole to people who volunteer for 10 hours a week, 50% of amount for people who would rather not. Obviously allowances for single mothers with children etc would have to be added etc….Only 10 hours, you still have plenty of time to look for work etc…..

  6. Mike Scott Says:

    The sad thing is that bonus points for maths has been talked about for so long that by now we could have piloted the idea for a year and seen what the impact was, and whether it “worked” or not. Instead we have done nothing (except talk about it some more).

  7. Mark Says:

    I always consider the discussion of bonus points for higher level Maths to by just symptomatic of a problem with the wider points system. The final year of secondary school is a game of strategy – how to maximize your return on investment. Return being points, investment being study. For me this meant choosing subjects with maximum overlap in the curriculum covered and determining whether the “extra study” required for honours maths (not to mention the chance of failing) would be better spent in another subject – that would give me a better return.

    I choose to devote my efforts to other subjects and do the pass maths course – a course which I got quickly bored with. I did get the points I desired but still regret not em brassing the challenge of the honours course.

    I think there needs to be some sort of incentive structure to do honours maths – is bonus points the answer? Maybe, or are we just trying to hide the underlying problem – the points race?

  8. Steve Says:

    Would bonus points not be a case of grade inflation?

  9. Steph Says:

    Bonus points for honours maths would directly disadvantage students who were not mathematical and could preclude them from there chosen profession. I hold a BSc in Radiography, a course with a high points requirement, and something which i really wanted to study in college. However I was not brilliant at mathematics and so took the ordinary level exam.

    In UL bonus points are given for Honours Maths and as a result entrance points to the Physiotherapy Degree are significantly higher than other colleges. Healthcare professions does not require honours maths and such a system would unfairly disadvantage those students, would be perfectly capabale of doing well in these courses and having successful careers in healthcare. I would hate to see people being precluded from these professions that are a much a vocation as a job, purely on the basis that they are not good enough to take on Honours Maths.

    I for one, would not have got into my course, and would not be a radiographer now, had bonus points been available in UCD at the time of my application.

    I see no reason to penalise a student for not being academically capable without reevaluting the reasons as to why so few take honours maths and looking at the curriculum itself.

  10. Laura Says:

    There were bonus’s awarded by NUI colleges in the 80s and early 90s for a+b grades in honours maths. They were not specific to technical courses though.

    People can always catch up later on, but better mathematical education at primary and second level should be a priority, and also “catch up” courses similar to Open Universities MU120 and MST121 courses that are more or less identical in content to the leaving cert.

  11. Aoife Says:

    I have just finished the Leaving Certificate today. I took Higher Level maths and found it to be exhausting. People who don’t take Higher Level maths don’t understand the amount of extra work that is put into it.

    Whereas a normal Secondary School student will have 7 maths classes per week, one per day, I was taking 11-12 maths classes per week.

    I came into school during October midterm, Easter and Christmas breaks for maths tutorial days. Despite all these extra classes, we did not manage to complete the whole course. This was in no way the teachers fault, as she explained everything very clearly, we just found some parts of the course extremely challenging. We also found the course too long.

    There were only 8 of us in the whole year taking Higher Level maths.

    The workload that you are required to do to keep up in Higher Level maths is enormous. It is really like taking 2 extra subjects.

    I know I won’t be awarded extra points, but I really think it should be brought in. The amount of extra work students put in the even pass in this subject is deserving of some sort of reward.

    The CAO system anyway is useless.
    The examination system is a test of how well a student can learn off pages of information and regurgitate it in an exam.
    I loved maths as it was the only subject I felt moderately challenged in.


  12. […] issue of bonus points has been covered previously in this blog. While most academics would take the view that this is not the complete […]


  13. […] bonus points for mathematics Readers of this blog will know that I have previously addressed the issue of whether students should receive bonus points for higher level mathematics in […]


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