Choosing the correct level of senior school mathematics can boost a student's chances of doing well in the first year of maths and science courses at university. That's one of the takeaways from a new Australian study.
It found that students who were strong performers in General Mathematics at Year 12 achieved similar or even higher first-year pass rates than students who left school with weak results in the more challenging Mathematics Methods or Specialists Mathematics.
Removing the level of maths chosen from the equation, Year 12 achievement also mattered. Strong performers in senior school maths – whatever the maths subject chosen – achieved very high first year pass rates at university in Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.
The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) study was commissioned by the Australian Council of Deans of Science. Writing in Research Developments [rd] Dr Daniel Edwards, Research Director of ACER's Tertiary Education research program, and Dr Julie McMillan, Senior Research Fellow in the program, explain there are four levels of senior secondary maths in Australian schools. States and territories use different terminology – the terms used in their study report are: Essential Mathematics (the lowest level); General Mathematics; Mathematical Methods; and Special Mathematics (the highest level).
Edwards and McMillan say it's the first time researchers have attempted to explore the issue across a range of Australian universities and science disciplines. Their study analysed 16 436 school completers who were in their first year of a bachelor degree in science at one of 12 Australian universities during the first semester of 2015, 2016 or 2017.
‘Regardless of the level of mathematics studied in senior secondary school, the majority of university students passed their first-year science and mathematics subjects,' Edwards and McMillan write. In Group of Eight institutions (a coalition of leading Australian universities) pass rates ranged from 96 per cent in first-year biology to 83 per cent in first-year mathematics. The pass rates at non-Go8 institutions were 88 per cent and 73 per cent, respectively.
However, for school teachers, the message is that helping students choose the right level of challenge in the senior years will help set them up for success in their first year at university.
‘Interestingly, students who were in the top two achievement bands for General Mathematics achieved similar or higher first-year pass rates than students with low/very low performance in Mathematical Methods or Specialist Mathematics,' Edwards and McMillan share.
‘There has been much debate about prerequisites for university mathematics and science courses, and whether mathematics should be compulsory in senior secondary school. Overall, our findings show that, while the majority of university students do pass their first year Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics subjects, some groups perform better than others. This has implications for school subject choice, university admissions policies and the support services provided to first-year students.'
In their full report – Performance in first year mathematics and science subjects in Australian universities: Does senior secondary mathematics background matter? – the academics suggest further research could be carried out to explore the extent to which students with weak mathematics backgrounds are able to achieve a strong performance in maths and science subjects at university beyond their first year and progress to advanced study.
Read the full article: Exploring Year 12 maths performance and university achievement, published in ACER's Research Developments.
McMillan, J., & Edwards, D. (2019) Performance in first year mathematics and science subjects in Australian universities: Does senior secondary mathematics background matter? Final report. Australian Council of Deans of Science & Australian Council for Educational Research. Retrieved from https://research.acer.edu.au/higher_education/62
This research suggests that helping students choose the right level of challenge in the senior years will help set them up for success. How does your school support students in making decisions about their senior subject choices and study pathways? Do students know who to turn to at school if they need help with these decisions?