Friday, September 17, 2010

Bonus Points for Maths at UCD

As reported today in the Irish Times, and on the front-page of the UCD website, the UCD Academic Council have decided to introduce bonus CAO points for Leaving Certificate Higher Level Mathematics for a trial period of four years, commencing in 2012. The idea of a trial period is a welcome addition to the debate surrounding bonus CAO points for Leaving Certificate Higher Level Mathematics (henceforth "bonus points"). Instead of making a decision now in the absence of any (quasi-) experimental evidence, why not experiment with this measure and subsequently make a decison? Of course, the best we can hope for in this case is quasi-experimental evidence; one would imagine that randomising bonus points to different students (or schools) would be potentially very difficult. Not to mention the issue of fairness in the college admissions process. But maybe somebody can come up with a suggestion that would address all of these concerns. In any event, the precise scheme for the awarding of bonus points will be decided in the coming weeks; the objective is to have a single scheme for all institutions that will be awarding bonus points.

The UCD announcement contains a lot of additional content; it states that the introduction of bonus points will "only be successful if it is part of a suite of measures to interest students in mathematics, to ensure the best possible teaching and to support student learning... We will research the impact of bonus points to ensure it is equitable and effective." Specific research questions to be investigated are as follows:

* How much time, compared to other subjects and compared to other students
internationally do students spend on mathematics?

* What is the impact of bonus points on the uptake of higher level mathematics?

* Do bonus points have an effect on equity of access to third level?

The UCD statement recommends the introduction of two examinations; one testing basic mathematical competency, which if passed would secure a pass overall and entry to third level, and another to test advanced mathematics ability. This is as much of a distinct recommendation as introducing bonus points, and arguably a measure that could encourage take-up of Higher Level Maths in the absence of a bonus points scheme. Behavioural economists will recognise the potential role of loss aversion in how Leaving Cert. students decide whether or not to persist with Higher Level Maths. Only 16% of Leaving Certificate students take the higher level paper on the day of the examination but almost 40% of students register with the State Examination Commission to take the paper.

Also, the UCD statement identified three possible dangers:

* That bonus points may contribute to increased competition, or a worsening
points race

* That students who do not require high points might not see bonus points as
much of an incentive to persist with higher maths

* That higher level mathematics would not be available to some students,
particularly in schools in poorer areas, and that this would worsen issues of
access to university. (In 2009, 79 schools had no higher-level candidates
sitting mathematics in the Leaving Certificate. According to UCC Registrar
Professor Paul Giller, about half of second-level maths teachers do not have
maths as a major subject in their degree).

Finally, some outstanding issues in the debate on bonus points are as follows:

(i) Tom Boland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), has asked whether the bonus points would be awarded only to those who are going on to take a third-level course that requires maths. (According to David Quinn from the Irish Independent: "Those who are good at more literary subjects like History or English will be effectively penalised because they'll find it even harder to compete for university places with those who are good at Maths").

(ii) A HEA report on Career Opportunities in Computing & Technology mentions that Higher level maths and certain science subjects (i.e. physics and chemistry) are seen by many students to be particularly difficult and requiring a level of work that is not conducive to the objective of maximising CAO points. Is bonus points for Maths enough, or should there be bonus points for certain science subjects aswell?

(iii) According to the Irish Independent, the existing courses for which bonus points are available -- including all courses at UL and some courses at DIT -- do not have a higher rate of application from higher-level students, nor do they have a higher number of applicants than courses in the same disciplines where the bonus is not available.

(iv) Also according to the Irish Independent, when bonus points for higher-level maths were removed on foot of curriculum reform in 1993, participation in the subject at higher-level actually increased.

(v) According to David Quinn, journalist at the Irish Independent, "those who are already good at the subject will simply get more points without helping those who are currently failing it".

(vi) Kevin Denny has some comments related to bonus points on Ferdinand von Prondzynski's University Blog: "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."

(vii) A separate comment by Kevin Denny on Ferdinand von Prondzynski's University Blog: "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)."

(viii) A survey conducted by Engineers Ireland found nearly two-thirds of ordinary-level maths students said they would not opt for higher-level maths even if offered bonus points. The online survey was completed by 122 students who sat higher- or ordinary-level Leaving Cert maths this year.

(ix) On a separate but related point, it has been recommended that Maths should be compulsory for CAO points purposes to ensure students persevere with the subject, according to a report submitted to the Minister for Education Mary Coughlan.


Kevin Denny said...

I think this move by UCD is a good one & the announcement provides a very clear statement of what needs to be done.

Brian P Woods said...

You really do have to wonder about some of the reasoning and justifications about this matter.

The problem lies with the second-level curricula. They are daft. There should be only one syllabus in each subject, not an H and an O pairing. Just read the things: quantity triumphs over quality!

This proposal to give one specific subject some special status is pure Academic Mercantilism. It has no other objective than to bias selection toward a specific cohort of pupils. It is completely unwarrented and it should be fiercely resisted.

There is a secondary problem. Most third-level instructors have no training as educators and have default mindsets biased toward research. Hence they have inadequate, unstructured and ill-informed notions about the learning requirements of technical subjects. Maths is not a single subject, but a set of sub-subjects: sums are not the same as calculus and calculus is different to statistics and quantitative problem solving is different again.

Go back to the drawing board. Design a set of syllabi for the different needs (science + engineering, actuary, etc.) and make these compulsory for the relevant third-level degree programmes. Bonus points for any subject is elitist nonsense.

Brian P

Niall Watts said...

In my opinion, two separate papers as proposed by UCD should increase the numbers of mid-ability students taking higher maths whether or not bonus points are introduced.

As stated elsewhere, we need to be clear about the objective for introducing bonus points. Is it a better standard of maths among school leavers, greater numbers (or better quality) of science and technology graduates? Bonus points are really only of value for third level courses with high points requirements