Conceptual intersections: Reviewing academic numeracy in the tertiary education sector as a threshold concept

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As tertiary educators we have an expectation that students have developed sound numeracy skills from their previous studies in mathematics and that they should have the ability to transfer these numeracy skills into their studies in other discipline areas, such as the life sciences. In reality, each year this expectation is not being met by student cohorts. Despite resources being directed to improve the levels of academic numeracy of students in the tertiary sector and the so-called “maths problem” persists. In the life sciences, numeracy skills are required by the student and professional practitioner to express the patterns within populations and the dynamics of physiology. The patterns of populations are expressed in statistical parameters; the patterns of physiology are expressed in the parameters of physics. So what we really expect of the numeric competencies of our students is different from mathematics. We really want students to make sense of, and be critical of, the answers that they calculate in the context of life science. This has added importance when we consider that many of the points where students stumble over numbers, are probably threshold concepts. A grasp of numeracy at these key moments of learning might be essential and failure to appreciate this inhibits students from crossing over these thresholds of understanding. So where does that leave us with student numeracy? Can strategies to improve student numeracy be created by re-viewing and deconstructing the problem to discover the threshold concepts buried within academic numeracy? Here we present two case studies where re-viewing student numeracy has highlighted common stumbling points and it is at these impasses that intervention has been directed. Study 1: Plant Physiology. Online modules were created to assist students to improve their numeric competence. So why then did the “problem” not diminished? There have been numerous studies that show even students of mathematics have “maths anxiety”. Clearly there is a link between lack of confidence and students discomfort with doing calculations and from this a numeric skills task was designed and implemented in class. The task allowed each student to determine their confidence in: (a) understanding numeric concepts; (b) understanding quantities used in plant physiology; and, (c) their ability to calculate and convert between units of measure. For many students this was the first time their discomfort and their confidence with calculating had been highlighted so overtly. Enabling students to address their discomfort and engage in their own skills development has proved to be a useful approach, particularly for students lacking confidence. Study 2: Medical Statistics. Teaching medical students statistics relevant to their future practice is hampered in two ways. Firstly, because it is a “Cinderella” subject; statistics is far less glamorous or medical than the disciplines and topics of anatomy and physiology and so on. Secondly, as it is perceived to involve mathematics and numbers and hence is often viewed by students as difficult, complicated, unpleasant or just plain boring. In an attempt to engage and assist first and second year students in learning through a mainly online learning environment, the major threshold concepts were identified and analysed with the aim of finding a more engaging and successful way to approach teaching these topics. In so doing, the mathematic formulae were presented in a less mathematical way than previously and with an emphasis on functionality, theory and application.
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Quinnell, Rosanne
Thompson, Rachel
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UNSW Faculty