School maths failing varsity entrants

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The new matric syllabus first examined in 2008 provides an even worse preparation for first-year university physics than the old curriculum did, a new study has found.

Conducted by the South African Institute of Physics and the Council on Higher Education, the study surveyed physics academics and students at 20 universities and found unanimity that students’ preparedness has been dropping over the past five years.

Student unpreparedness “was most evident in students’ lack of adequate mathematical and problem-solving skills”, the recently published report said.

Although the new curriculum introduces students to more material than the old curriculum did, “this comes at the expense of a deep understanding of the fundamentals”.

Professor Craig Comrie of the University of Cape Town, who led the six-person team that wrote the report, told the Mail & Guardian that one factor was the matric exam itself.

“This appears to have become very predictable, encouraging rote learning rather than testing the student’s ability to apply their knowledge.”

A decline in maths skills was another factor. “Maths literacy is not accepted as adequate for preparing students for studies in the exact sciences,” the report said. More alarmingly, “even [matric] mathematics does not adequately prepare students for physics because very crucial topics ... that are critical are not being covered”.

The report cited a recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations that found, if the pass mark in matric was set at 50%, as it is in universities, then “the real rate of failure for mathematics and physical science would be closer to 80%”.

The government’s aim of increasing physics PhDs fivefold cannot be met without radical measures being implemented at undergraduate level, the report said. It expressed concern that the quality of physics programmes had become “debased”.

The report’s top recommendation is to lengthen undergraduate physics study from three to four years. Disparities in laboratory and other resources across universities must also be addressed.

Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, said the union’s “own research has confirmed that, due to the new curriculum, students’ level of competence has dropped”.

“Training of teachers was supposed to be prioritised to understand the curriculum,” Maluleke said. “But there is lack of investment [by the department] into teacher training and professional development. Teachers are still struggling with teaching the new curriculum.”

However, the basic education department spokesperson, Panyaza Lesufi, said “the department is on its toes with regard to content training for both teachers and subject advisers”.

He also said “there is no empirical evidence to substantiate the [study’s] claims”. At the same time, the department was “mindful” of the “challenges relating to articulation and alignment between the schooling system and higher education”. As a result, the department would “look at this report very closely to ensure that these concerns are addressed”.

Nithaya Chetty, a professor of physics at the University of Pretoria and group executive for astronomy at the National Research Foundation, praised the report for speaking out. “I commend the authors who have been courageous to confront this elephant in the classroom that the politicians and policymakers are not always keen to talk about,” he said.

“It does not help for us to simply focus on pass rates when we are not adhering to the standards of a quality education.”

By: Bongani Nkosi

Source: Mail & Guardian