Project Maths linked to decline in third-level performance

By Joe Humphreys, Irish Times:

Students entering third-level are at increased risk of failing courses with a maths module, according to a study that casts doubt on the merits of the new Leaving Cert maths syllabus. Researchers at University of Limerick found the mathematical ability of students entering higher education declined significantly in the period 2003-2013, and say the focus on doing practical exercises in Project Maths at the expense of ‘drilling’ students in basic skills could be a contributing factor. Controversially, the study also indicates that the standard of maths associated with a B at higher level in the Leaving Cert corresponds roughly with a C 10 years ago, and similarly that a C corresponds to a D.

This year was the first in which all Leaving Cert and Junior Cert students followed the Project Maths syllabi. The study, published this month in the International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, analysed the performance of students beginning science- and technology-based undergraduate courses at the UL. Researchers Paraic Treacy of UL’s department of Mathematics and DIT academic Fiona Faulkner discovered that 12 per cent of students who achieved a higher-level grade C in the Leaving Cert in 2013 were at risk of failing their third-level exams. This compared to just 1.6 per cent in 2003. More than 40 per cent of those who achieved a higher level grade D in 2013 were at risk of failure at third-level compared to 12 per cent in 2003. Similar patterns were identified at lower grades.

The authors say the findings indicate that the transition to Project Maths ‘has coincided with a decline in performance of the basic mathematical skills which are required for students to be fully prepared for service mathematics studied in higher education.’ Dr Treacy told The Irish Times there could be factors other than Project Maths behind the trend but it was legitimate to ask whether ‘more generous marks’ were being given to students for attempting the higher paper.