MathsFit: A digital support system for first year university mathematics students in the time of Covid-19

Mullen, Claire and Cronin, Anthony (2021) MathsFit: A digital support system for first year university mathematics students in the time of Covid-19.


Given the disruption of teaching and learning due to the pandemic-enforced school closures in Ireland from March 2020, we, at the UCD Maths Support Centre (MSC), had concerns about the mathematical readiness of in-coming university students. While teachers provided expected grades the usual reflection (student-completed state examinations) of students’ achieved mathematical learning via secondary schooling was unavailable. Coupled with these concerns was the issue of university teaching, learning and assessment being wholly online for what turned out to be the entire first trimester of these students’ studies.

To mitigate these potential problems, we designed MathsFit for in-coming university students. MathsFit is an online resource which includes a mathematical proficiency quiz, a mathematical background questionnaire, and a pre and post survey of students’ mathematical anxiety. The proficiency quiz uses best practice in standardised diagnostic testing building on PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) and tried and tested examples from Ireland, the UK, Asia and Australia. It provided students and us with a snapshot of their competencies in the fundamental mathematical areas which require mastery for success in their university mathematics courses. To further understand students’ mathematical proficiency, part of the mathematical background questionnaire examined the students' perceptions of whether their secondary school curriculum was fully covered due to Covid-19. We also investigated their feelings about mathematics, as measured by the Betz (1978) Mathematics Anxiety Scale.

MathsFit’s key feature was a suite of digital supports to assist students with the transition to university mathematics. This included a short video, uploaded to the institution’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Brightspace, welcoming students to the university and introducing them to the concept and rationale of MathsFit. Students completed the quiz and surveys through

Brightspace and then, using the Intelligent Agents and Release Conditions features of the Brightspace VLE, received a personalised support email. This email gave students information about, and links to, tailored mathematics support dependent on their scores from MathsFit as well as the opportunity to retake the quiz to measure their improvement. This support encompassed both one-to-one and small group virtual maths support sessions using the Virtual Classroom feature of Brightspace and personalised video tutorials within the Moodle VLE. The email also invited the highest MathsFit achievers to act as peer-mentors to the lowest achievers in the small group support sessions.

While the testing and diagnosing of students’ mathematical competencies upon entry to university is quite common, studies concerning follow-up support and interventions for at-risk students are less common. In addition, there is a lack of research exploring and analysing online diagnostic testing, which up until now has usually been conducted live in lecture halls with pen and paper, and subsequent digital student support.

This talk will present the challenges, methodology and preliminary findings from the first iteration of MathsFit (792 participants). Our findings see promising early evidence of strong initial engagement, improved performance in basic mathematics skills and prolonged engagement with online maths support throughout the first trimester of university study.

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