Aims and objectives
This three-year project investigated factors that influence the development of undergraduates’ numeracy skills, with a view to identifying ways to improve them and thereby enhance student employability. Its aims and objectives were to ascertain: the generic numeracy skills in which employers expect their graduate recruits to be competent and the extent to which employers are using numeracy tests as part of graduate recruitment processes; the numeracy skills developed within a diversity of academic disciplines; the prevalence of factors that influence undergraduates’ development of their numeracy skills; how the development of numeracy skills might be better supported within undergraduate curricula; and the extra-curricular support necessary to enhance undergraduates’ numeracy skills with a view to enhancing students’ employment prospects.
This study involved undergraduates and tutors in a diversity of academic disciplines at a post-1992 UK university, and included a collaborative study of national (UK) and international dimensions for history. A multi-method approach was adopted, resulting in the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data. Online- and paper-based questionnaires were complemented with numeracy tests, student focus groups and tutor interviews which provided undergraduates’, graduates’, tutors’ and employers’ perspectives on key issues.
The results of an employer survey highlighted the importance that many employers attached to graduates’ numeracy skills and their increasing use of numeracy tests as part of their graduate selection procedures. Contributions to the project made by undergraduates and tutors across a diversity of academic disciplines supported the findings of previous studies in terms of students’ conceptions of mathematics, their attitudes towards and approaches to learning mathematics and developing numeracy skills and the nature and prevalence of mathematics anxiety. They also revealed the extent and diversity of existing opportunities for intra- and extra-curricular numeracy skills support across a variety of academic disciplines, as well as students’ preferred methods of support and potential barriers to increasing support within some areas or disciplines. The findings revealed a general lack of awareness amongst undergraduates and tutors of the importance of numeracy skills to students’ attainment of graduate employment. At the same time and encouragingly, in the case of history the evidence suggested that improvements could be accomplished by relatively modest changes to the curriculum. The relevance and susceptibility of historical data to quantitative analysis, the skills within the profession, and the pre-university mathematical qualifications of history students make such improvements eminently attainable within this discipline.
The project generated a substantial quantity of research data, which has been analysed and presented and disseminated in a range of formats and via a variety of forums to the main stakeholder groups, including employers, academic colleagues (in the UK and overseas), undergraduates and graduates (see Appendix 2 of the report for a list of publications and other outputs). In addition, a variety of valuable resources have been identified which support students in the practice and further development of their numeracy skills; these have been advertised via the project’s website and the student drop-in support sessions introduced at the lead institution. In addition, a website is being created with higher education history programmes to disseminate ‘good practice’ in the teaching of quantitative skills within this discipline.
This study revealed that history students can all too easily over-estimate and be over-confident about their mathematical capabilities and tend to resist their incorporation into history degree programmes. Nevertheless, the means whereby the situation may be remedied are present, if there is the will to address the issues identified. The main overall conclusion from this study is that it is vital that universities ensure that their undergraduate populations are equipped not only with the numeracy skills necessary for progression and success within their academic disciplines, but also with those numeracy skills necessary for them to attain graduate employment and to be effective subsequently in their workplace. Assisting undergraduates to develop more positive attitudes towards numeracy skills is also vital as their attitudes can influence their approach to learning and further developing their numeracy skills. One way in which students’ attitudes can be influenced favourably is by making the numeracy relevant to their academic disciplines and/or applicable to their future employability.