Assumed Mathematics Knowledge: the Challenge of Symbols

Caroline Bardini, Robyn Pierce

Abstract


Low progression rates in the mathematical sciences are of national concern. Various programs providing student support have been implemented across the higher education sector and a number of researchers have analysed the teaching of specific topics with view to making recommendations for improvement. In this position paper we suggest that insight into a potential barrier to students’ choices regarding the study of mathematical sciences may be gained by adopting a complementary approach to the study of specific mathematics topics. We highlight the importance of paying attention to potential barriers to student learning as a result of discontinuity, unchartered extension and heightened complexity in the use of symbols when students progress in mathematical sciences from school to university. Symbols form the foundation of mathematical communication. We conjecture that the increase in symbol load due to unfamiliarity and increased density may cause students to lose confidence and subsequently choose a study path that minimises their need for mathematics. In this paper we propose a framework for analysing symbolic load and briefly report initial findings from a pilot study.

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