Thousands of college students in Ontario need help with grade school math

Jordana Divon
Daily Brew

Enterprising tutors may want to pack up their calculators and head toward Ontario's post-secondary institutions.

A recent study by York University and Seneca College in Toronto has found that thousands of Ontario's first-year community college students have signed up for basic math courses in order to brush up on skills they should have mastered in junior high.

As Parent Central reports, the study's authors said their findings raise a red flag over the quality of math instruction in the province and could also indicate a growing lack of interest in math that may hurt the economy over time.

"We're expressing concern that 8,300 students are taking preparatory and foundational math in first-year college, but the vast majority cover concepts introduced in Grades 6, 7 and 8," co-author and York University professor emeritus of math Graham Orpwood told Parent Central.

Statistics from the College Mathematics Project revealed that 33 per cent of Ontario college students taking mathematics ran the risk of not completing their programs due to poor performance.

The report also showed that one in four of those students were enrolled in community college preparatory or foundational courses that cover concepts like fractions, decimals, percentages and order of operations.

But when researchers dug through a backlog of school curriculum to see if the order of operations memory trick BEDMAS was conspicuously absent, they discovered these lessons had all been taught in grade school.

Some theories the authors floated around ranged from poor grades (in many schools you only need a 50 per cent mark to earn a course credit) to students having strengths in certain areas, like geometry, but not along a broader range of skills.

They also discovered that many pre-foundational courses in subjects such as business and technology offered general reviews that brushed over these basics and weren't necessarily indicators of poor comprehension.

Still, Orpwood told the news site, the general attitude that being bad at math is acceptable may lie at the bottom of this trend — and needs to change.

"If you're illiterate, it's a matter of shame. But if you can't do math, you brag about it — 'I can't do math and my kids can't either,'" he said, adding that the number of math specialists coming out of teacher's college has diminished and the ones that do, usually get "snapped up" by private schools.

The study sits in contrast with the 2010 results of the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, where Grade 8 students from Ontario and Alberta were found to have the highest national scores in math, science and literacy, while Ontario's Minister of Education noted that student results have improved in province-wide math testing.