The problem with maths


As an admissions tutor for chemistry at Southampton University I read last issue's Endpoint from David Smith with much interest. I agree with him that we should admit onto our courses only students who are capable of meeting the challenges of a degree in chemistry. Mathematics is an integral part of our discipline and we have always been open about this in discussions with potential students. Any chemistry graduate will confirm the range of skills needed to survive the rigours of topics as diverse as organic synthesis and quantum mechanics is broad and requires hard work. But how do we ensure that our incoming students are equipped to meet these challenges? 

A-level maths required?

It is certainly tempting to insist on mathematics A-level as a 'must' for entry onto a chemistry degree course. A quick survey of the 2010 entry requirements for chemistry at the Russell Group universities shows that only two (Durham and Imperial College London) insist on students having A-level maths, with both Oxford and Cambridge presumably only admitting a very small number who don't have it. As indicated in Smith's article, Bristol will join this list next year, and others may soon follow.

There is no question that 'mathematical skills' are essential to ensure progression in chemistry, but does the evidence confirm that A-level maths itself is a prerequisite to success on our programmes? After all, many students with excellent mathematical skills choose not to study the subject at A-level, to broaden their studies or pursue an interest. Are we right to tell these students that they are not qualified to study chemistry at degree level? 

A brief inspection of data on the performance of our students (incoming cohorts from 2004-08) throws some light on the issue.

Of our first-year undergraduates who had studied A-levels,ie  excluding International Baccalaureate (IB) or alternative qualifications, around 80 per cent had A-level maths, a majority of whom achieved grade A or B. So, in fact, a large proportion of our students is already coming to us with A-level maths at a good standard. How do these students perform relative to the 20 per cent who do not have A-level maths? 

In terms of performance, in Year 1, students with grade A or B in A-level maths perform better on average than those with lower grades or those without A-level maths. Moreover, we find that students are more likely to leave their course in Year 1/2 if they come to us without A-level maths, though the level of attrition is comparable to that of students with a maths grade of B or lower.  

Once we look at cohorts passing through Years 2-4, however, the performance of students without A-level maths is on a par with that of students with maths grade A or B, and noticeably better than that of students with lower A-level maths grades.  

At the top end of our cohort, students without A-level maths make up approximately 20 per cent of the students attaining first class marks in exams across all four years. Thus a lack of A-level maths does not seem to be disadvantaging able students who study chemistry at Southampton, and it is likely that this will be the case at many other institutions. I suggest that a key factor in this finding is the 'maths for chemists' provision that we, like most other university chemistry departments, have put in place. Indeed, many students who do have A-level maths tell us that these classes are immensely beneficial to them because maths is taught in a chemistry context. 

Worth noting

Furthermore, A-level exam boards now offer a wide range of different types of maths A-level, some of which are evidently better preparation for future scientific study than others. I believe that continued 'maths for chemists' provision will ensure a level playing field for mathematicians from different A-level backgrounds, and will allow us to maintain support for students with outstanding potential in chemistry who choose not to study maths at A-level.

Interestingly, our data reaffirm that the top performers at A-level are not always the top performers at degree level, reminding us that care needs to be exercised when setting offers. As demand for chemistry degrees increases, we face challenges in ensuring that we attract the 'right' students. As someone who chose economics instead of maths at A-level before going on to study chemistry (at Bristol, incidentally), I am concerned that we are in danger of excluding some very capable students who have decided, for commendable reasons, that A-level maths is not for them.

Dr David Read is director of undergraduate admissions and school teacher fellow in the school of chemistry at the University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ.