Maths and science pupils 'set up for disappointment'

The 2010 maths and science matric results rang alarm bells for some educationists on Thursday, with one saying marks in these subjects often set up learners for disappointment when they entered universities.

Fewer candidates wrote the maths and science exams in 2010 than in 2009. Maths recorded a 1,4% increase in passes and in science there was an 11% increase in passes.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga expressed disappointment on Thursday at the maths results. “We are certainly not happy with the current number of passes in mathematics and have planned to continue investing significant resources in ensuring that the pass rate as well as the quality of mathematics are significantly improved this year,” she said.

Diane Grayson, a professor of physics at the University of Pretoria, said that focusing merely on pass rates in these subjects was not enough. To enable more learners to become engineers, scientists and medical practitioners it was necessary to improve their problem-solving skills and conceptual understanding in the two subjects, she said.

Problem solving Grayson headed a study published last year showing “anecdotal evidence” from universities that students’ problem-solving skills and conceptual understanding were worse than they were in the past.

Nan Yeld, the dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town, said it was “a real concern” that fewer candidates had taken maths and science and that more had taken maths literacy instead. Of the smaller number of maths and science candidates, “only 29% obtained 40% or more in maths”, Yeld said. “In the physical sciences, again fewer students took the subject and of these only 30% managed to get 40% or more.

“The seriousness of this should not be underestimated,” she said. “As Professor John Volmink, past chair of the Umalusi Council pointed out, a pass of 50% in the NSC [national senior certificate] is equivalent to a pass of 40% in the old maths higher grade. The great majority of students passing maths and science, therefore, are doing so at considerably less than the old maths higher grade 40% level.”

Grayson said that universities would face problems with the coming cohort of students. And the downside of improving pass rates was that students became tremendously depressed when they did not perform well at universities, she said.

“We will be doing these learners an injustice if we do not develop their problem-solving skills and conceptual understanding in these subjects and we will not be doing the country any favours too as these are our future scientists and engineers,” said Grayson.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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