Edging towards bonus points for mathematics

According to a report in the Irish Independent, all the universities except University College Dublin have now agreed that there should be bonus points in the Leaving Certificate for higher level Mathematics. UCD may also come to the same decision, but it will need to be taken by its Academic Council, which is not due to meet until September.

The issue of bonus points has been covered previously in this blog. While most academics would take the view that this is not the complete solution to low levels of mathematics attainment by secondary students, it is at least potentially part of the answer. What will need to be impressed upon the government, however, is that the situation will not become fully satisfactory until problems at second level have been addressed, including the problem of inadequately trained and motivated mathematics teachers. The risk is that Ministers and officials may think that the universities’ action in applying bonus points at the Leaving Certificate level provides the solution and that no further government action is required. We must not allow that view to gain traction.

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14 Comments on “Edging towards bonus points for mathematics”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    It would help if we had a clear statement about what problem this change is designed to address. Is it simply to increase the numbers doing Higher Maths in the Leaving Cert? It would probably succeed in achieving that but I don’t think of that as especially worthwhile. Most of those who take higher maths will go to 3rd level and yes they will know a bit more maths but many won’t be studying mathematical subjects so it won’t matter. Those who are taking such subjects will probably have taken the higher paper anyway.
    Or is the idea that having been essentially bribed into doing higher maths in the Leaving they will keep going (forgetting their aversion to the subject) and pursue scientific or technical degree in university? So this is all about creating more scientists for the innovation economy etc?
    While this might be a worthwhile objective, the idea that a temporary incentive to do higher maths in the Leaving will have a long run effect doesn’t seem terribly plausible. Is there any evidence that this works? Secondary students are very well tuned into the points machine and will, my guess is, simply take the points and run i.e. do what they want to do anyway.
    There is a good basis for bonus points for maths unrelated to these arguments namely that ability at maths is a better proxy for general cognitive ability. So if we think that more able students should get priority, as the points system does, then a student who does better at Leaving Cert maths than another student is better in general even if they have the same total points (i.e. that student will do significantly better in university).
    There are two unpublished studies (one from UCC I think & one from UCD) that demonstrate this & I have arrived at similar results recently. Note this is not just the case in technical subjects but even in Arts/Humanities. Maybe this is because Maths is harder to memorize your way through, I don’t know.

    • Vincent Says:

      I’m sorry but that 2nd pillar of you argument could be used for Latin Greek or any other language subject.
      The point here is that they are solving the problem of the lack of concept grasp in the usual nasty way. The problem here is that teaching at 2nd level is absolute rubbish, requiring grinds to supplement if not to teach the from scratch. This removes a huge proportion of the population from any access to a education in Mathematics. And rather than force the Dept of Ed to fix the problem, which they could do. The Universities have pandered to the usual social engineering.
      It is with situations like this that terrifies me for the future, for if ever the Universities do get to charge full fees then God help those unable to afford them.

      • Al Says:

        There is also the cosy element to this too.
        2nd level students buy the relevant books to do the course.
        Teachers teach out of the books.
        The books…..
        Hardly a recipe for innovative teaching?

    • Jilly Says:

      Gosh Kevin, that’s me put in my place, then! I was dreadful at maths…in my defence, my maths teacher was probably the worst teacher I had (and I went to an awful school, so that was some achievement on his part), but even so…

      As for the bonus points, I think it’s a terrible idea. Despite my own difficulties with the subject, I’d love to see its standards raised and more students taking it. But as FvP says, giving bonus points for it without fixing the issues at second-level is no solution to the real problems. One of the more serious knock-on effects is going to be one of access, given that a significant percentage of schools don’t offer Higher Level Maths in their syllabi, and in the main those are of course schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

      It’s also going to have a distorting effect on the entry-requirements for subjects like mine at third-level. While I welcome mathematical ability among my students (and value its contribution to reasoned thought), it’s not particularly relevant to their subject, whereas good writing skills are essential. When bonus points for Maths are brought in, the points system is going to advantage a good Maths student with so-so writing ability over a student with good writing skills and so-so Maths, quite the opposite of what we need in our recruitment.

      This whole thing strikes me as one of the more clear-cut examples of this government’s preference for a quick-fix fake solution to a problem rather than a serious attempt to address its underlying causes.

      • kevin denny Says:

        My intention wasn’t to put anyone in their place! Its not that you have to be good at maths to be clever and of course there are arguments about whether there is one intelligence or two or seven as Howard Gardner argues.
        All I know is that maths points in the LC are a better predictor of your college grades than other points: they both help but maths more. Whats interesting is that this is true even in more literary subjects. As I conjectured, this may be as much a reflection of how the subject is examined. So, paradoxically, someone with an A in Maths may actually be better at writing than someone with an A in English. I would echo Cormac’s comments below, I would much rather our economics students had a good maths background, I am not bothered whether they have studied economics in school (preferably not though).
        So I’m sympathetic to bonus points though probably for a different reason to most people. The access issues that you raise (& wendymr below) are very real ones though.
        There is a rule of thumb in economics that for every objective you have, you need at least as many instruments (i.e. policies) because if you use one policy to achieve one target if may have an undesireable effect elsewhere so you need something else to offset that. But governments tend to decide on one policy at a time.
        So you need separate policies for dealing with social disadvantage and for, say, special needs students. Then you have to coordinate all these policies because, like drugs, they often interact. Its bloody difficult.

  2. wendymr Says:

    What about students with dyscalculia? Learning disabilities in general are, of course, something educational institutions already offer allowances for in an attempt to level the playing field for students affected by them. But here you are proposing bonus points for a subject students with dyscalculia will struggle to get through at pass level, and have little to no hope of being able to get these bonus points – thus disadvantaging them further compared to students without this disability.

  3. cormac Says:

    I think it’s a step in the right direction – at a recent meeting of 3rd level physics department heads, almost all agreed that it is actually more important for students to have LC honours maths than physics, even for those choosing a physics degree.
    This because maths is the language of science, indeed the gateway to so many disciplines.

  4. cormac Says:

    Jilly: I should say the other vital skill picked out was good writing ability, also a major problem for a great deal of students

  5. Geoff Says:

    “What will need to be impressed upon the government, however, is that the situation will not become fully satisfactory until problems at second level have been addressed, including the problem of inadequately trained and motivated mathematics teachers.”

    You are rightly very quick to come to the defense of lecturers and professors who are criticised with inadequate data. Perhaps you could extend the same courtesy to second level teachers?

  6. Perry Share Says:

    I noticed that just about the final exam in the LC, taken when the vast majority of students were relaxing in front of the World Cup (or whatever) was something called ‘Applied Maths’. It seems to be a minority sport, but surely a relatively easy way for the maths-philic to pick up another honour? Or am I missing something here?

  7. cormac Says:

    It’s a good point but appplied maths is a bit of a misnomer: it’s really mechanics, a branch of mathematical physics. It is , as you say, a ‘minority sport’, not necessarily of interest even to people who are very good at maths

    • Perry Share Says:

      so why not replace it with a type of maths 2? though the notion of actually applying maths sounds good to me! perhaps an IT-based or information literacy subject would be more useful than mechanics?

  8. cormac Says:

    I suppose it’s because maths 1 is already very large as a subject, and takes up a lot of time. One of the reasons I’m in favour of bonus points is that I spent twice as much time studying LC mahs than any other subject


  9. […] and that they are worth a try. These and other issues have ben addressed in a previous discussion on this blog, and also more recently on the blog of UCD’s Geary […]


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