Mind the Gap!: Addressing the Mathematics Gap in Biosciences

Are we failing our Biosciences students by not incorporating enough Mathematics into their course material? Dr Allison Hill details how she will tackle the ‘mathematics gap’ present in Biosciences students.

As a Chemist teaching Chemistry in the Biosciences Department at the University of Exeter, I have noticed that certain degree programmes are over-represented at the lower end of the marks.

I had always thought this was due to a lack of chemical knowledge as several of the modules I teach are interdisciplinary and attended by students from up to eight different degree programmes.

Upon interrogating the exam results last summer however, I found that this was not the case.

What was causing these lower marks?

To my shock I was able to correlate poor performance in my exams with a lack of Maths A-level.

While I love Chemistry and teaching it I have become despondent at the lack of mathematical knowledge of some of my students.  Students are having difficulty with basic stuff like log, powers of 10 and algebra.

Upon doing some research into this issue I read the Wakeham report and was horrified to discover that the problem with poor mathematical skills is not just confined to my classes but is endemic across Higher Education in Biosciences across the UK.

Wakeham described a ‘mathematics gap’ in Biological Sciences that results in poorer employment outcomes including students in high tariff institutions like Exeter. Simply put Biosciences graduates lack a lot of the ‘work readiness’ skills graduate employers are asking for.

Many employers and employer representative groups have for a number of years reported difficulties in recruiting the skilled [STEM] graduates that they need.’ – Sir William Wakeham (2016)

This deficit in mathematics and statistics is not just confined to Biosciences: the HEA have identified Geography, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Business, Management and even Computing among the degree programmes affected by this skills gap (Hodgen et al., 2014).

Biology students taking my final year Pharmacology and Medicinal Chemistry module were more likely to fail if they had no maths A-level. Compared with their fellow Biology students who did have maths A level, students without A-level maths had a final course mark that was on average 20% lower!

What can be done to tackle this ‘Mathematics Gap’?

So how can I address this mathematics deficit in my students?

My first solution was to have a mathematics catch up module in first year or offer general maths skills in tutorial sessions. However, Wakeham concluded in his report that theis wasn’t an effective solution and that it was better to integrate applications of mathematics onto courses.

Wakeham argued that if students didn’t enjoy mathematics then, being forced to do it now would not work. Not to mention that some students perform well on the course despite a lack of Maths A-level.

‘Biology students taking my final year Pharmacology and Medicinal Chemistry module were more likely to fail if they had no maths A-level.’

Determined to help my students, I applied to the brand new Exeter Education Incubator last summer and was accepted to be a Fellow.

Since then I have discovered that there are initiatives on Exeter campus to support quantitative skills such as Statistics workshops for biology students provided by postgraduate students.

In Politics, data analysis has been embedded into the social sciences as part of the Q-step programme; the Business school also provided maths and stats support.

I have spoken to colleagues in my department and they are supportive at improving our students’ maths skills and increasing the amount of data analysis in their modules. So now I need to identify which modules would benefit from incorporation of (more) data analysis and from maths support more generally.

I believe it is very much the case that the more the students are exposed to data and how to process it the more confident they will become.

So how do we increase the maths content of our modules and better support the students who need help?

I believe to be fully inclusive and demonstrate relevance that the best course of action is to generate module specific resources.

This will ensure that all of the students can access and use additional material to improve their skills and confidence.

‘I believe to be fully inclusive and demonstrate relevance that the best course of action is to generate module specific resources.’

Starting with my modules, I have been looking at resources already available online as well as thinking about data sets I can make available for students to practice on and get feedback on.

I believe it is integral to make the maths relevant to the students rather than forcing maths onto them that they have no vested interest in.

In the end asking students to do maths problem sheets that are not linked to their curriculum risks alienating the people that you are trying to help.

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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