PLEASE NOTE: The recommendations below relate to the range of outputs and findings of the project. These can be found on pages 13 - 43 of the Final Project Report: History Strand.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Numeracy skills should be incorporated in history courses and not ‘bolted on’ to them
The best methods for teaching numeracy skills to history undergraduates require careful consideration. The students themselves, though not entirely uniformly, were inclined towards the incorporation of limited numerical elements into courses. Some thought that such provision could be made by way of optional economic history modules for those who wished to engage with quantification. There was no support for ‘bolt on’ modules provided by either the degree programme or the institution as part of a wider generic skills course. This sentiment was echoed by tutors during the follow-up visits. ‘Bolt on’ provision might be used to provide remedial or additional support but, if compulsory would be resented, if optional would probably not be effective.
RECOMMENDATION 2: History programmes should incorporate basic numeracy skills that revive and keep ‘ticking over’ the skills that students bring with them from school
Most history students have a mathematics qualification at GCSE level or above. This level of pre-university knowledge forms the basis for our ‘ticking over’ recommendation. Moreover, competence levels had declined in the interim period between school and university. Given that the students who participated in the numeracy test were asked to apply fairly basic mathematical skills of the type they would have encountered at school, the overall results revealed quite low levels of mathematical ability. The graduate survey uncovered a related issue – the likely effect of neglecting numeracy at university. The perception of respondents was that school, which was given the very high rating of 4.6 out of 5 on a competency scale, was by far the most important influence on the development of their numeracy skills. In contrast, undergraduate provision scored the lowest mean rating (2.0). The implication is that, during their undergraduate years, respondents were at best ‘marking time’ and at worst slipping back with regard to developing their numeracy skills. Asked if the courses they were taking should keep their numeracy skills ‘ticking over’, do more than this or not address the matter at all, the general view expressed by the focus groups was in favour of a ‘ticking over’ approach. Moreover, to embark on a more ambitious programme of teaching new or more advanced mathematical skills would most certainly be met with resistance from both tutors and students and would therefore be counterproductive. In any case, such ‘upskilling’ is unnecessary. In terms of historical study, higher level skills could safely be left to the postgraduate level provided there is a sound base upon which to build, while in terms of general employability, the concern of the vast majority of history students, incorporating modest changes in the curriculum to keep basic numeracy skills ‘ticking over’ would help meet the demands of most employers of history graduates. The type of mathematical skills that many employers say they regard as important, and which figure in their numeracy tests, are integral as well to mainstream quantitative history. The responses to the tutor survey suggest that history teachers are eminently capable of delivering such a modest programme and that they believe, as well, that improving the numeracy skills of students is important – though their own commitment to doing so is open to question. History is well-equipped to perform this task of ‘keeping warm’ a range of numeracy skills by virtue of the primary source materials available for interrogation, the willingness of many of its practitioners to espouse active learning approaches and its tradition of economic and quantitative analysis. With regard to the last of these, despite the decline in the teaching of economic history and in the number of economic historians, many departments still have a reservoir of staff skilled in quantitative approaches and whose talents could be usefully deployed in the realisation of this recommendation. A starting point for implementing it is our good practice website.
RECOMMENDATION 3: History programmes should make better use of ICT to cultivate students’ pre-existing skills
The survey of current undergraduates revealed that the great majority have used spreadsheets. This extant knowledge can be drawn upon to keep warm some of their existing numeracy skills, for example the ability to prepare original charts and graphs from the data they have derived through investigating primary evidence. The students also reported a general facility in preparing statistical tables and calculating percentages and averages. A similar confident self-evaluation featured in the graduate survey which indicated as well that these applications were useful to their later employment. That history undergraduates can generally be expected to be familiar with using spreadsheets and that they are highly likely to use spreadsheets in the workplace, reinforces the point about the value spreadsheets can have in developing numeracy skills. Use of ICT in teaching numeracy could easily be done in a more systematic, planned and progressive way (see Recommendation 4). At present this is not the case; while most UK history departments provide students with the opportunity to use one or more ICT applications, the majority of students can avoid doing so if they wish, apart from the ‘soft’, non-numerical applications. This evidence from the survey of departments is confirmed by the website survey which revealed that, whilst history programmes frequently aim to involve students with ICT applications, only in three instances was the requirement to use spreadsheets and databases and, by implication, to deal with quantitative data unambiguously specified. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to use ICT as one conduit for delivering numeracy; students recognise its contemporary importance, they have engaged with it in some form in school or home, it can readily be identified as a ‘life skill’ and consequently its ‘relevance’ can act as a form of gravity pulling in numerical activities.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Numeracy skills should be incorporated in history programmes to ensure student progression
The survey of UK history departments revealed that only a very small number of programmes incorporate numeracy skills in a progressive way. Less than a quarter of respondents (or 12% of the 91 HEIs surveyed) said they were doing this and none were doing so in a systematic way through all three or, in the case of the Scottish universities, four years of the degree-programme. Not a single department was found to have a compulsory numeracy skills element in every year. This, and other evidence, suggests that the majority of history undergraduates can pick their way through their programme in such a way as to have little or no need for numeracy skills. This finding was supported by evidence from the follow-up visits. Even in departments that, the general survey had suggested, were teaching more in the way of numeracy skills than most, it was nevertheless being done in a spasmodic way with little evidence of progression from level one through to levels two and three. Progression also needs to be considered in regard to students who go on to postgraduate study. The departments visited were keenly aware that the lack of provision of numeracy skills was especially critical at the postgraduate level where the ability to demonstrate more than a passing acquaintance with quantitative techniques is required by funding bodies. It may be that many departments regard leaving numeracy skills to the postgraduate level as appropriate in terms of progression. The authors of this report believe that this is leaving things too late and that the inclusion of basic numeracy skills developed progressively through the undergraduate programme would provide a much sounder platform for postgraduate study, not to mention future employment.
RECOMMENDATION 5: The teaching of basic numeracy skills to history undergraduates must be reinforced through assessment. Funding of pedagogic research on this vital issue and on approaches to teaching numeracy in general is urgently needed
The survey of UK history departments uncovered only 17 that claimed to be using assessment strategies to measure the attainment of numeracy skills. The website survey and the international survey found very little evidence of extant good practice that might usefully be disseminated across the sector. The question of how best to assess, both formatively and summatively, the progressive acquisition and demonstration of numeracy skills by history undergraduates is one that is crying out for pedagogic research, though there are practical examples both in UK and overseas history departments that could be used as a starting-point. We would recommend that departments, the History Subject Centre and the Higher Education Academy consider funding pedagogic research on this critical subject that would lead to the development of teaching packages and aids, including online IT materials and courses. The Subject Centre has made an excellent start here with its publication of the guides by Rodger and Freeman alluded to earlier but much more needs to be done.
RECOMMENDATION 6: For numeracy skills to be successfully incorporated into the history programme, it is essential that students are convinced of their importance
The general feeling expressed in the student focus groups was that numeracy had limited value in the study of history. The message of the value of quantification in historical study is either not being conveyed or not getting across. The students also said that they would look at tables of historical data if they felt their understanding would be enhanced by so doing, otherwise they would skip over them. The point was made that the relevance or practical application of mathematics had not been made clear to them and that there would be more incentive to engage with quantitative skills if the reason for doing so was made clear. The focus groups and the current undergraduates surveyed also recognised the advantages that numeracy can bring in terms of their future employability. Emphasising the importance of developing numeracy skills in employability terms would therefore persuade some, though not all, students of their value. Currently, history tutors are doing very little to proselytise the usefulness of numeracy skills either to the understanding of history or as a transferable skill. The survey of departmental websites revealed that only 15% made any specific reference to numeracy or quantitative techniques. The history profession’s inability to ‘remember’ numeracy when listing valuable employability skills speaks volumes in a Freudian way about its ‘number-phobia’. Departments therefore might usefully revisit the information they provide on their websites and in their programme brochures regarding core skills, transferable skills and employability.
RECOMMENDATION 7: External agencies should provide both leverage and assistance to ensure the wide adoption of numeracy skills
The history benchmark statement includes a permissive recommendation with regard to teaching numeracy skills but it has not greatly influenced the content of undergraduate programmes in relation to these skills. The survey of UK history departments reveals just how little they are doing in the way of systematic numeracy skills teaching. Of the respondents, over 90% admitted that they should be doing more to improve their students’ numeracy skills but there is a big gap between tutor sentiment and a willingness to act. This report can exhort and, within its limited remit and authority, make modest proposals that would be effective if they were adopted. However, it is most unlikely that exhortation will be enough if the profession is left to its own devices. At the moment, it can continue with impunity to bury its collective head in the sand. Comments in the UK department survey and the follow-up interviews provided evidence that departments face little institutional or external pressure to consider numeracy provision. Undergraduate programme reviews have paid little attention to the acquisition of student numeracy skills, there has been an absence of any ‘steer’ from faculty or university or from external agencies such as external examiners. There seems to be an irrational fear among many history tutors about ‘compelling’ the inclusion of numeracy in the undergraduate history students’ skills-set. It is our contention that the basic skills we have identified are within easy grasp of the great majority of tutors and students and that such skills should be accepted as part of the normal range appropriate to the understanding of the discipline and of the transferable skills related to a graduate’s career opportunities and life-skills.
In the meantime, it is encouraging to report that the Higher Education Academy’s History Subject Centre has agreed to host the 'Good Practice' website, which will include examples of ways to incorporate a range of numerical skills into history undergraduate programmes and a guide for teachers and students on how best to make use of the materials. The design of this website follows an invitation from the Subject Centre to the three historians on the project team to take forward their recommendations during 2010/11 as part of a major project on History Graduates with Impact. The good practice website, or Resource Portal will be completed in spring 2011.