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Project Findings: promoting numeracy and enhancing employability

"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."


[The concluding statement on the background of the project]

The following highlights are taken directly from the projects final report, based upon:

  • current student surveys
  • follow-up focus group discussions
  • numeracy test
  • graduate survey
  • UK departmental survey
  • follow-up visits to departments
  • website survey
  • tutor attitude survey

The value in developing historical skills

Views on the value of undergraduate numeracy teaching

Graduate responses and experiences

Graduate employment

Methods of incorporating numeracy skills in history departments

Examples of resistance to improved numeracy provision 

Tutor views on the importance of numeracy skills

The website survey: evidence 

The value in developing historical skills (undergraduate level)

A very high proportion (85%) of students felt that developing numeracy skills would ehnance their employment prospects. However, only 44% thought that developing numerical skills would enhance their learning in historical studies.

table 1

Given these findings, stressing the importance of numeracy skills in employability terms may be a useful way of encouraging history students to overcome their reluctance to engage with them. However, focus group discussions revealed a disconnect between course expectations and future employment options  ⇒ ⇒

 Views on the value of undergraduate numeracy teaching
  • There was some appreciation of the value that numeracy can have in historical study, but this value was felt to be limited.
  • There was general recognition that numeracy was important in gaining a job but some commented on the responsibility of the future employer to teach the relevant skills, or the university to offer training as an optional extra.
  • There was no support for including a dedicated 'bolt-on' numeracy module in undergraduate history programmes.
  • An appreciation of the importance of numeracy skills did not rise significantly between first years and final year students about to enter the job market.
Graduate responses and experiences

Graduates were asked to assess the extent to which their undergraduate history courses had helped them develop particular numeracy skills. The resulting data indicated that the opportunities had been low. However, as the table below show, many did not see any need for further provision of skill development.

table 2 

65% believed the emphasis on numeracy skills had been about right, however, 27% did believe that their degree programmes should have placed more emphasis on numeracy.

The final question about the respondents’ experience of numeracy skills development sought to compare the influence that their undergraduate history courses had in this respect compared with school, undergraduate employment and subsequent employment. Two points stand out from this feedback:

  • The perception of the graduates is that school was by far the the most important influence on the development of their numeracy skills. In contrast undergraduate provision scored the lowest mean rating. The implication is that, during their undergraduate years, respondents were at best ‘marking time’ and at worst slipping back with regard to their numerical capabilities.
  • Quite a high rating was given to numerical skill development in the workplace reflecting no doubt the need for specific job-related skills and suggesting that more could be done at undergraduate-level to anticipate this need.

For the great majority of history graduates sampled, it is evident that basic numeracy skills were developed during the compulsory years of education but that these were largely neglected or under-utilised until they entered the world of work.

 Graduate employment

The table below is a breakdown of the survey respondents current field of employment (with the 2005 HESA prospects data alongside the respondents for comparison).

table 4

Whilst very few were employed as numerical clerks and cashiers, the high number engaged in the first two occupational groups would require a significant degree of numerical understanding. This was reflected in the respondents reflection on the numeracy skills they found useful in the workplace.

They reported that some numeracy skills were proving more useful than others, with interpreting graphs and charts (mentioned by 39%) and calculating percentages (mentioned by 38%) leading the field. In third place, some way behind at just 29%, was preparing tables of statistics. Of the rest, only calculating averages received a response in double figures (18%), though 14% thought that all numeracy skills were useful. However, almost as many (13%) had found none of any use. The only others mentioned were calculating ratios (5%) and taking representative samples (4%).

The two numeracy skills that figured highest in the workplace were also those in which the graduates had professed the highest levels of competency. Incorporating these skills within the history curriculum may therefore have particular advantage in career terms and might well meet with little resistance. Overall, though, relatively few respondents identified numeracy skills as being particularly useful to them in the workplace; not one was singled out by a majority of the respondents in this respect. It is possible that they had not been attracted to jobs in which numeracy skills had to be applied to any appreciable extent. If so, their career choices might have been somewhat circumscribed. Only 19 of the graduates (20%) had received any numeracy training from their employers. It appears that the graduates were able, on the whole, to cope with the numerical tasks required in their current jobs. However, 31% believed that more numeracy training in their history programme would have increased their career opportunities.


Methods of incorporating numeracy skills in history departments

70% of the 91 UK HEI's offering single-honours history programmes responded to the survey: over 90% admit that they should be doing more to improve their students' numeracy skills. Of these 45 (out of 64) said they were teaching numeracy skills. The following data is based on these 45 responses.

The most frequently cited method, used in 34 cases (75%) was ‘diffusion across a range of modules’ – in other words the skills are taught in small doses within any type of module across the whole programme. 27 departments (56%) incorporate numeracy skills in modules dealing specifically with historical skills. However, the time allocated to this numerical component using either of these approaches may be quite limited. Nor is it certain whether assessment was used. Very few departments (23%) reported having specific modules dedicated to numeracy learning, preferring to disperse rather than concentrate it.

As can be seen in the table below, the responsibility for managing the teaching of numeracy skills was most frequently left to committed individuals: usually the economic historians in the department. The implication is that departments in general do not pay as much attention to developing numeracy as they do to other key skills.

table 4 

Most numeracy teaching is not taught as part of compulsory modules, and is not progressive across the degree programme, suggesting that the majority of undergraduates can pick their way through their degree to engage very little with numerical or quantitative techniques.

Only 17 of the 45 departments reported that they used assessment strategies to measure the attainment of numeracy skills.

 Examples of resistance to increased numeracy provision

"We used to do this [compulsory numeracy training] for all students, but have retreated ... because of student hostility to it."

"There are too few staff who are numerate to increase compulsory numeracy training."

"This is one of the many things that many of us would like to do, but it is - as ever - a matter of resource."

"Probably staff give a lower priority to numeracy than to literary or communication skills."

"We adopt the principle of maximising student choice on modules, which tends at the moment towards text-based modules."

"The Benchmarking Statement does not require the teaching of numeracy and quantitative methods, except as one among many desirable skills to be developed."

" ... it does not seem to hinder their degrees or - as far as I can make out - their subsequent employment."

A final word on the case for more numeracy ...

"The decline in the level of numerical provision for undergraduate history students may have a serious impact at the postgraduate level as students enter their studies with little understanding or even acquaintance with quantitative analysis."

The conclusion from follow-up meetings with departments was that both staff and students are resistant to any significant change in the extent and level of numerical provision. Any change would have to demonstrate the relevance of quantitative approaches to historical study. Bolt-on quantitative modules simply would not work, and numerical understanding must sit alongside a range of other skills as part of the capabilities of the undergraduate history student.  

Tutor views on the importance of numeracy skills

Tutors were asked whether they thought it was important to improve their students' numeracy skills. An overwhelming majority (84%) responded positively. The reasons they gave clustered in three main areas:

  • Numeracy skills form part of a set of skills that undergraduate historians require. One tutor commented, 'All historians are quantitative historians; we use quantitative expressions all the time – “few”, “probably”, “most”’. Another added, 'Historians need to count before they can evaluate what they have counted'. History is an evidence-based subject, 'therefore in order to produce an accurate and balanced answer it is most important that students have both good numeracy skills and an understanding of the data/statistics they are dealing with'.
  • Numeracy skills are important 'life skills'. One tutor observed that, 'There is absolutely no way of understanding modern politics or society without being able to enumerate, even at the most basic level. How much? Why? Can we trust the numbers?’ Another remarked that numeracy is 'an essential life skill, especially as so much of (the) media is innumerate and misreading of data is rife'.
  • Many respondents commented on the importance of numeracy as a transferable skill and its relevance for employability. A typical comment was: 'Amongst the transferable skills we teach our students, numeracy is an important one… Through equipping students with such skills, we are enhancing their employability following graduation.’ Some tutors also made the connection between numeracy as a transferable skill and its relevance both to the subject and broader life skills: ' Enhanced employability is the most important factor; but also because their (student) ability to understand claims based on number(s) is essential to good citizenship as well as good research.’
The website survey: evidence of numeracy provision

Of the 91 websites searched, specific reference to numeracy or quantitative techniques could be found in only 14 cases (15%). Of these, eight related to general statements about the development of these skills within the programmes offered; the other six made mention of their use within specific history modules. In one of the specific cases, it was stated that the sources examined ‘may’ include statistics.

Such a small number of general references to numeracy provision certainly suggest that very limited attention is being paid to it, even allowing for any fears that website reference to quantification may act as a deterrent to prospective students. This said, it is likely that specific modules are doing more to engage students with numeracy than can be deduced from the summary website data alone, since those dealing with economic and business history and historical demography will include some quantification, as will modules dealing with sources and techniques. Nevertheless, modules of this type form a small proportion of the whole and most are offered as options, enabling students to avoid encountering any quantification if they so wish.

The indications from the survey are that, while undergraduate history programmes encourage students to develop and use ‘soft’ ICT skills such as word-processing and internet use, they do not usually pay much attention to applications that deal with numerical analysis. It may be that rather more is being done in this respect than the survey findings reveal, but, if so, this seems more likely to be the result of individual initiative than of declared programme objectives.

It is commonplace for history department websites to mention that the various skills history students are taught are highly valued in terms of future employment. Additionally, mention is made of how these skills are valued in the wide range of careers into which history students go. Work placements are frequently offered too. However, only in one case was specific mention made of numeracy being a skill that history students could develop with employability in mind.