Mathematics not adding up

On Wednesday of this week the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, issued a statement congratulating students on the Leaving Certificate results. In this statement she also used the opportunity to address the issue of bonus points for Higher Level Mathematics, as follows:

‘The Tánaiste has made her preference for the introduction of a points bonus for achievement in higher level mathematics clear and has written to the higher education institutions in that regard. The higher education institutions are, as a result, currently considering the question. Some institutions have already confirmed their intention to introduce such a points bonus and the question is under active consideration in others. Further details will emerge over the coming weeks, when institutions have completed their internal considerations.’

However, the ink had hardly dried on her statement (or whatever the equivalent computer age metaphor might be) when the Irish Independent reported that two universities, University College Cork and NUI Galway, had decided not to back the proposal. A decision by UCD is still awaited.

This means that, whatever the universities’ position on bonus points will be, it will not be a united one. For myself, while I remain to be persuaded that bonus points will make a significant practical difference, I am aware that key stakeholders of the universities (including the government, but also industry) are very anxious to see that this change is adopted; and I am not sure how wise it is to reject that.

It remains clear that this country’s ability to attract investment will depend to quite an extent on having a population that is recognised as being highly numerate and science aware. Therefore any steps that could prompt students to pursue higher maths are welcome. The absence of a clear and joint approach by the universities in this matter will not do us any favours.

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11 Comments on “Mathematics not adding up”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    As ever there is a studied vagueness about all this (ironic given that maths is the least vague of subjects) and your post reflects this. So what exactly are you & the Minister hoping to increase? Is it better mathematical attainment at the Leaving Cert (LC) level or in third level?
    If the former, I think bonus points may well be effective: Leaving Cert students are pretty good at working the system and if there are more points for Higher Maths then it is likely that they will respond to this. But really who cares? The Leaving is effectively a university entrance exam so it is doubtful that this is what will impress prospective investors. After all, people generally forget pretty quickly what they had to swot over to get through the Leaving.
    So is the idea that this initiative will propel more students into technical subjects like science and engineering at third level, thus helping the smart economy etc? This might be a laudable objective but it seems terribly naive to think that having effectively bribed students to do more maths in secondary school that they will just keep going i.e. that this will make them change what they wanted to study at university forgetting that they weren’t that crazy about maths in the first place. Maybe, maybe not but it seems more likely to me that they will take the points and run i.e. study what they wanted to study anyway.
    Personally I think bonus points for maths might be a good idea because I think success at LC mathematics is a better proxy for ability than on other papers where one can more easily get through with rote learning (there is actually evidence on this). But if the idea is that this change will do something for the smart economy we need a very clear statement of what exactly we expect will follow from such a policy & how we think it will happen. This is no time to waffle.

    • Al Says:

      From the look of the situation there is always plenty of time to waffle.
      What the points bump will do is incentivise those able to, to put in extra effort to get extra points increasing their benefits.
      But what about those who arent able to, or are of questionable ability?
      There will be little to no benefit to these people, the people who go to school to learn in the first place.
      Students, i think they called.

  2. There should be a points system similar to the old NIHE Limerick system in which the subjects that were most relevant to your course scored higher. So for a language course good grades in LC language subjects counted for more than maths or science grades and vice-versa for the science and engineering courses. To value all grades equally for application to all 3rd level course is ridiculous.

  3. colummccaffery Says:

    Mass Mathematics
    The idea that the “smart economy” needs graduates in maths and science and that we therefore need to ensure more people take and achieve in higher level maths is comforting nonsense.

    Just for now, let’s leave the question of employment aside. The kind of society – and industry – which is emerging means that someone without a fairly good grasp of maths, science/technology, English and general knowledge cannot function fully as a citizen. It is daft to think that someone can gain entry to ANY university course having failed or not taken maths and a science/technology subject. Don’t get me started on illiterates with a result in hons English!

    The primary and secondary systems are not delivering on the basic requirements of mass education and pretending that the problem is specific to mathematics and within that, to getting a few more to be successful at higher maths, just will not do.

    Here’s something written in response to the same debate in 2008,
    Here’s something more recent which includes a list of some basics which many students lack,

  4. Kevin O'Brien Says:


    Almost every area considered to be part of the “knowledge economy” relies, to some extent, on mathematical skills.

    Considering the mathematical content of nearly every science and technology degree program, I have absolutely no doubt about the need for our school leavers to have a proper mathematical skills base.

    I notice you specifically refer to the higher level leaving certificate in your “comforting nonsense” comment, which I feel is unjustifiable.

    In the higher level syllabus, there is arguably a slight over-emphasis on calculus. Some have suggested a second parallel maths course that has focuses on management science, statistics and probability. As well as being a usefuls skills set for the knowledge economy, there are less of the “greek squiggles” that seem to put some students off.

    • kevin denny Says:

      The Applied Maths course is a bit of a misnomer in the sense thats its just Classical Mechanics (the last time I checked, anyway). Nothing wrong with that of course but there is a Physics paper. Perhaps it could be re-invented taking on broader applications like discrete mathematics, information theory, some optimization problems, stuff that actually gets used by applied mathematicians.

    • colummccaffery Says:

      You misunderstand me or rather I seem to have misled you. My point IS that EVERYONE needs mathematical skills AND what I’m trying to summarise as basic science/technology skills. My difficulty is that the present panic re maths looks only to higher maths and the route to maths, engineering and science degrees.

      It should not be possible to enter ANY degree course having failed or failed to do maths.

      You’ll find that the majority of lecturers in the humanities will lament illiteracy, many will lament lack of general knowledge but too few speak immediately of the maths problem. You’ll find some examples of maths ignorance affecting the humanities in here:

      Frankly, it’s just not possible to be a competent person without maths.

      A more sensible response just now is not a demand for bonus points but a requirement that all potential students at least pass maths.

  5. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    Yes I completely misunderstood.

    I reckon that there is a heterogeneity in people’s numerate ability. A candidate might do poorly in one type of syllabus ( e.g. Calculus ) but might do better in another (e.g. Statistics).

    To be awarded the Royal Statistical society graduate diploma, Candidates had to pass five 3 hour exams.
    The fifth paper was an Options paper covering specialist applications. It consisted of half-syllabuses in Economics Stats, Econometrics,
    OR, Medical Stats, and Industrial stats. Each candidate had to answer questions from two of these half-syllabuses.

    Maybe we could try something similar with the applied maths paper, making Mechanics and Statics into two of many half-syllabuses.

    • Kevin,
      You’ve prompted a couple of thoughts. Firstly, there’s a memory of mine. I was in the old CoT, Kevin Street and my maths teacher, seeing that I wasn’t getting the point of it all, asked me to integrate the expression for a circle. Hey,interesting! Then she asked me to integrate again. Wow! She asked could I see that it was practical and useful? I said, “propellars!” I realised that here was a real teacher and I could have done with her at secondary school.

      Secondly, your point about grouping for specialist application has raised a thought: that one could have a syllabus for, let’s call it, “citizen maths” because … well no, I’ll stop. That would take an essay and it’s way past midnight.

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