University of Kent’s Division of Natural Sciences bridges the gap in vital mathematical skills

Skills in mathematics are a crucial requirement for Natural Science degree programmes. We have collaborated with academic educators at the University of Kent to develop a custom Smart Worksheet that gauges numeracy skills in a range of essential topic areas. 

The Smart Worksheet helped staff pinpoint solid and weak topic areas and efficiently target resources towards students who might need further support.

The Challenge:

To ensure students have the grounding in maths skills needed for a natural sciences degree

Like most parts of life, learning in pre-university education was disrupted by COVID-19. High school students did not get as much in-person teaching as well as the cancellation of exams such as A-Levels.

As a result, it was likely that some of the new university cohort wouldn’t have all the mathematical skills necessary for the first year of their degree.

Dr Alexandra Moores, Lecturer in Microbiology at Kent’s School of Biosciences, wanted to support incoming first-year students within the Natural Science division to have the necessary maths skills for the year ahead, which covers the Schools of Physical Sciences, Biosciences, and Sport and Exercise Sciences.

Although each School covers different subject matter, all three have a requirement for core mathematics skills. Identifying the common areas that required attention called for an innovative approach to test and educate the new students.

“Each school predicted that due to the cancellation of A-level and BTEC examinations, resulting from the Covid-19 global pandemic, students may struggle with mathematics skills necessary in the first year of a degree programme.”
Dr. Alexandra Moores

The Solution:

Test the numeracy skills of the incoming cohort and develop targeted support

In collaboration with Dr Alexandra Moores at Kent's School of Biosciences, we set out to produce a custom Smart Worksheet to identify students who might not have all the foundational maths skills needed. This exercise highlighted the specific areas that need additional support.

Benchmarking incoming students

The Smart Worksheet gave students a range of problems covering different subject areas, presentation styles, and difficulty levels. The worksheet allowed them to practise topics from their GCSEs, A-levels and BTEC courses while getting accustomed to the myriad of ways data is presented in university lectures, tutorials and labs.

The aim was to assess each student and the whole cohort arriving at the Division of Natural Sciences. Specific skills covering handling arithmetic and numerical computation, scientific notation as well as handling and representing data.

Calibration plot from Smart Worksheet
Example of data handling and representation in the Numeracy Smart Worksheet

The Numeracy Smart Worksheet was designed to assess students’ grasp of mathematical principles in a range of contexts, both their theoretical understanding and how to use this in the way that science problems appear (i.e. graphically, tabular, written format). 

Our custom worksheet incorporated GCSE, A-level and BTEC level questions, which increased difficulty as the questions progressed.

The strategy required getting the Smart Worksheet to students before they started their degree course. So, the worksheet was sent to the new cohort in early September using Moodle, an open-source learning platform, two weeks before their arrival for welcome week. Doing this in advance gave Dr Moores and her colleagues time for data analysis and implementation of support aids into the curricula before the courses progressed and students encountered problems.

Dr. Alexandra Moores
“The Smart Worksheet was designed to determine understanding at the school level to enable each school’s academics to adapt and shape future lectures and resources to support student learning success and direct support to where it is most useful."
Dr. Alexandra Moores
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The Results:

40% of incoming students identified as needing help

enabling staff to target additional resources and support efficiently

Rolling out the Smart Worksheet in September, two weeks before the new cohort arrived, gave staff time to analyse the results and identify the students that needed support to develop all the skills required for the demands of the degree programme.

Effectively targeted teaching resources

This approach enabled the course tutors to reach out to those individual students and implement direct support.

340 students took the Smart Worksheet

This included 157 from the School of Biosciences.

Analysis of results found that students generally had trouble with dilutions, concentrations, kinetics and equation rearrangements. Identifying specific shortcomings helped the teaching staff to adapt and shape future material to best support learning success.

One example of such a positive intervention was the creation of interactive YouTube videos, which covered all the fundamental mathematical skills required by students in the School of Biosciences. These were incorporated into a first-year core skills module for the 2020/2021 academic year.

Using a Smart Worksheet has helped the Biosciences academic team to dedicate more time to teaching and implementing mathematical problems in their modules. In the process, avoid the stress and challenges caused by students with gaps in mathematical knowledge resulting from the COVID-19 disruption. 

Dr Moores has since applied the Numeracy Smart Worksheet to measure the maths skills of the new 2021 intake and used a modified version to benchmark progress in understanding last year’s cohort as they move into their second year.

Dr. Alexandra Moores
“The numeracy Smart Worksheet developed by the Division of Natural Sciences and Learning Science enabled the School of Biosciences to identify that 60% of incoming students have the necessary skills in mathematics. The results facilitated the implementation of additional support strategies to reinforce mathematical skills for all Stage One Biosciences students to enable future success.”
Dr. Alexandra Moores
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