David Trick and Jackie Pichette — Strengthening numeracy skills in university and college students: What’s the best way forward?

“How much water is wasted every day in Canada by people who brush their teeth with the tap running?”

How would you go about answering this question? You probably don’t know what percentage of Canadians brush with the tap running, but if you are sitting in a large class, a survey of classmates might get you started. Ditto if you want to know how often people brush or how long they brush for. The total population of Canada is easy to find. You could estimate the flow of a tap by running water into a bucket for one minute and measuring the result or you could try to find an estimate online.

In working out an answer to this question, you are practising and developing your numeracy skills. You are thinking with numbers, though not necessarily about them, to solve a real-world problem. No advanced mathematics is needed. And, it so happens, you are grappling with one of the practical questions posed to the students in Professor Miroslav Lovric’s course.

Dr. Lovric is a professor at McMaster University and Director of the Centre for Mathematics Education at the Fields Institute. He teaches a popular elective course at McMaster called “Numbers for Life,” where he helps students from a range of disciplines develop a feel for numbers. One of the ways he does this is with tasks that require numerate reasoning about climate change, like the teeth-brushing exercise.

Recently Professor Lovric and his colleague at the Fields Institute, Andie Burazin, assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, collaborated with our team at HEQCO to host a day-long workshop on numeracy. About 30 people from universities, colleges, research organizations and government departments explored the question of how Ontario colleges and universities might upgrade students’ numeracy skills in ways that will serve them well in their personal and professional lives.

Workshop participants agreed that, much like literacy, numeracy skills are an essential part of a transferable competency set. To succeed in almost any field of work, Canadians should be able to use and interpret numbers in a range of contexts. And at home, we should be confident reasoning with numbers — understanding nutrition labels, for example, or taking appropriate doses of medications, managing credit card debt and saving for retirement.

Recognizing the importance of these skills, the Ontario government recently announced a new four-year math strategy. Starting this spring, it will begin rolling out a revised math curriculum in all primary and secondary grades that will focus on math fundamentals. But the buck doesn’t stop there. Like other transferable competencies, numeracy skills are only maintained and improved with use. And there is evidence that Ontario postsecondary students may be out of practice. A HEQCO pilot study found that 25% of participating university and college students scored at Levels 1 and 2 in an OECD-designed test. And a survey of five Ontario universities found that nearly one-fifth of students reported having difficulty conducting numeracy tasks involving basic math skills like percentage calculations.

What can be done to improve numeracy skills among Ontario PSE students? Our workshop participants had some great ideas, like integrating more problem-based learning in university and college programs (and also in high school), designating numeracy faculty leads who can spread knowledge and facilitate communities of practice, creating a repository of numeracy modules and resources that all Ontario institutions can access and incorporate into their programs, and developing and sharing relevant assessments to continuously improve numeracy teaching and learning.

For HEQCO, this workshop was an important foray into the practical implications of our work on numeracy. We are grateful to our partners at the Fields Institute and the participants. The findings will help inform our future work in this area.

David Trick is interim president and CEO of HEQCO; Jackie Pichette is director of Policy, Research and Partnerships.

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