The decline in mathematics achievement amongst Canadians in various international standardized tests has resulted in a lot of hand wringing. Much of the public focus has been on teacher education and teaching of mathematics in schools. However, the decline in achievement among Canadians in mathematics is not just about teachers and teacher education.
The development of effective mathematics teachers begins with undergraduate mathematics education. At the moment, the field has an outrageous rate of attrition that makes it difficult to ensure that students who become teachers have a deep understanding of the subject.
Few students complete mathematics degrees, many students that do take mathematics courses struggle, and students are not rushing to take mathematics courses electives if they are not required for their degrees. Women are particularly under represented in undergraduate mathematics education.
Getting students to want to study mathematics in university is not the biggest problem. In fact, after many years of decline, there has been a small increase in the number of students enrolling in undergraduate degrees in mathematics over the last few years. Many students do not finish these degrees.
What happens between the beginning and end points? A recent report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching suggests that 75 per cent of students leave high-school at least two or more levels behind in terms of their readiness to study postsecondary mathematics. To combat this issue, many universities and colleges offer free and optional remedial mathematical programs and support centres for students; yet, uptake of these services often fails to reach those students that need it the most.
Remedial programs that are integrated into the degree requirements (i.e., co-requisites) for students who need to take mathematics courses and are perhaps behind in their readiness appear to be more effective. Integrating remedial programing as a required component of a degree for those that need remediation could potentially make a huge difference to supporting success in postsecondary mathematics learning. For this shift to occur, remediation must be viewed by universities as more than just an add-on service and more a central part of assessing students' readiness for university level math.
For those who are passionate about the subject, universities need to be doing something radically different in terms of the way courses are taught and the way in which support is provided to students.
The decline in mathematics achievement points to some serious concerns about the overall ability of Canadians to engage in ordinary everyday mathematics such as reading graphs, calculating percentages, and basic calculations. Regardless of whether students plan to major in STEM or even become future teachers, some mathematics should be integrated into all undergraduate degrees.
More progressive approaches would include an undergraduate mathematics credit requirement for any degree. Such efforts could engage students in mathematics through innovative programming and course content which may also contribute to shifting the widely held views of "I'm not good at math" and "I hate math."
At Princeton University, course titles in the mathematics department include: "Useful Fictions: How and why mathematics is developed and then changes the world," "Mathematics Alive," and "The Magic of Numbers." These courses are for non-mathematics majors and are aimed at students with no prior university mathematics experience. Outreach to students who are non-mathematics majors should be a priority for universities.
A serious revamp of undergraduate mathematics education is crucial. It requires rethinking mathematics education at the postsecondary level – and this is tremendously challenging for a discipline that has arguably remained relatively static in terms of the students drawn to the discipline and its approaches to educating those students. More students, regardless of whether they are mathematics majors, STEM-based majors, or future teachers need to be enticed into the discipline to begin to tackle the decline more broadly.
An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated the attrition rates of students in math programs. This version has been corrected.