About Secondary and University Mathematics

The decline of tertiary enrolments and the low retention rates in mathematical sciences is a national and international concern.

The project will examine symbol use, a key aspect of students’ mathematical experience at school and university, and measure its impact on progression rates. Research, at secondary level, shows that mathematics symbols’ conciseness and abstraction can be a barrier to learning. Discontinuities in how symbols are used can make mathematics seem like a foreign language so students lose confidence. This project will explore the equivalent issue at the university level, when mathematics becomes more symbolic and its writing more subtle, requiring increased ‘flexibility’ from students. It will ascertain the impact on progression rates in mathematical sciences.

The project’s outcomes will include illustrated descriptions of similarities and contrasts between conventions and use of symbols in secondary and university mathematics and across mathematical sciences. It will provide evidence of links between students’ response to increased symbolic load and their confidence to continue studying subjects with high mathematical content at university, thus grounding potential teaching action plans to smooth secondary-university transition. The outcome will be innovative teaching practices to retain students in mathematical sciences, and hence increase the STEM workforce.

The project has been approved by the University of Melbourne Human Research Ethics Committee and is funded by the Australian Research Council under the Discovery Project scheme for 2015 (DP150103315).