Developing and Implementing Support Mechanisms to Tackle the ‘Mathematics Problem’ in Higher Education
Submitting InstitutionLoughborough University
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Education: Curriculum and Pedagogy, Specialist Studies In Education
Summary of the impact
Research conducted between 1997 and 2013 at Loughborough University
helped to tackle the
`mathematics problem': a significant challenge for the entire UK Higher
Education (HE) sector.
Significant impact during the assessment period has arisen from the
development of Mathematics
Support Centres at UK and international Higher Education Institutions
(HEIs), based on the model
developed at Loughborough University, and from an online resource, mathcentre.
network of practitioners has facilitated the dissemination of the
`Loughborough Model', and resulted
in changes in institutional policy and practice. Direct beneficiaries have
been teaching and support
staff in HEIs and students across a broad range of disciplines.
Beginning in the late 90s, an on-going programme of research at
Loughborough University (LU)
has focused on the mathematics learning of undergraduates, including both
students and those who use mathematics in other disciplines. This
programme was initiated by
widespread concerns in the academic community of a "mathematics problem":
the acceptance that
incoming undergraduates were insufficiently prepared for the mathematics
components of their
courses. Early evidence for this was provided by Croft along with
recommendations on how to
address the problems through a variety of support measures [3.1].
Alongside this mathematics-specific work, other colleagues at LU embarked
upon research into
how technology could be successfully incorporated into student support
mechanisms in HE and, in
particular, how widespread use of computing facilities impacts on
students' use of learning spaces.
Crook's ESRC-funded research found that students equipped with IT
equipment in their residences
valued the accessibility and flexibility of online learning resources, but
that they also wanted the
complementary experience of engaging in a real-world learning community [3.2].
Informed by these findings, Croft began to develop and evaluate online
and real-world support
mechanisms designed to address the mathematics problem, which collectively
became known as
the `Loughborough Model'. An online collection of reusable learning
resources, known as
mathcentre, was developed by a consortium led by Croft
(funded by the Learning & Teaching
Support Network). In line with Crook's findings, mechanisms to support a
learning community were also developed. The earlier embryonic mathematics
support available at
LU was transformed in scope to include a large campus-based Mathematics
(MSC) offering physical resources for students to access, social working
spaces to encourage
collaborative work, and a drop-in advisory service.
After these initiatives had been set up, a (still on-going) iterative
cycle of design research was
initiated which led to the development of further mathematics support
resources and mechanisms.
Key findings from this body of research include:
(a) MSCs can have positive impacts upon student communities and students'
(b) MSCs can substantially improve progression rates of students from
(c) MSCs can be provided to mitigate the issues students with specific
encounter when studying mathematics and statistics [3.4];
(d) students adopt different and unpredictable patterns of engagement
with optional learning
resources (including online and real-world support mechanisms) and this
must be closely
monitored for the resources to have maximum effect [3.6].
These and other findings have fed into a continuous cycle of design,
implementation and analysis
that continues to this day. Current research in this area includes
projects which focus on the use of
peer support in advanced mathematics courses (funded by the HE Science,
Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programme, £30k) and web-based
presentation systems for
teaching mathematical proof (funded by JISC, £70k).
Key Researchers: Dr Lara Alcock (2007-date, Senior Lecturer in
Professor Tony Croft (1996-date, Professor of Mathematics Education), Dr
Charles Crook (1996-2004, Reader in Psychology), Dr Carol Robinson
(2002-date, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics
Education), Dr Matthew Inglis (2008-date, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics
References to the research
3.1. Armstrong P. K. and Croft, A. (1999). Identifying the
learning needs in mathematics of
entrants to undergraduate engineering programmes in an English university.
Journal of Engineering Education, 24, 59-71.
3.2. Crook, C. K. and Barrowcliff, D. (2001). Ubiquitous computing
on campus: Patterns of
engagement by university students. International Journal of
13, 245-258. DOI:10.1207/S15327590IJHC1302_9
3.3. Symonds, R. J., Lawson, D., and Robinson, C. L. (2007). The
effectiveness of support for
students with non-traditional mathematics backgrounds. Teaching
Mathematics and its
Applications, 26, 134-144. DOI: 10.1093/teamat/hrm009
3.4. Perkin, G and Croft A.C. (2007). The dyslexic student and
mathematics in higher education.
Dyslexia, 13, 193-210. DOI: 10.1002/dys.334
3.5. Solomon, Y., Croft, A., and Lawson, D., (2010). Safety in
Numbers: mathematics support
centres and their derivatives as social leaving spaces. Studies in
Higher Education, 35, 421-431. DOI: 10.1080/03075070903078712
3.6. Inglis, M., Palipana, A., Trenholm, S., and Ward, J. (2011).
Individual differences in students'
use of optional learning resources. Journal of Computer Assisted
Learning, 27, 490-502.
All outputs listed in this section report significant, original and
rigorous research. Each was
published in an international peer-reviewed journal, and has had lasting
influence on the field.
Outputs 4, 5 and 6 were published in journals ranked in the "INT1"
category by the European
Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH). This is the highest category in
system, and represents "international publications with high visibility
and influence among
researchers in the various research domains in different countries,
regularly cited all over the
world". Output 1 was published in an "INT2" ranked journal (the second
highest category of
international journal). Output 2 reports research funded through the
highly competitive ESRC
review process, and was published in a highly-ranked computer science
journal (the 13th highest-ranked journal in the ISI "cybernetics"
ESRC L132251034, Learning Sites: Networked Resources and the Learning
Community, to Light
(Bournemouth), Crook (Loughborough) & White (Southampton), £149,131,
Details of the impact
This case study describes wide-reaching impact resulting from still
on-going research: (a) the
development and use of mathcentre (www.mathcentre.ac.uk)
and (b) the adoption of mathematics
support by HEIs in the UK and elsewhere. These have impacted on the
learning outcomes of large
numbers of students studying a wide range of courses with a mathematical
component including those with additional needs such as dyslexia.
Mathematics support informed
by the Loughborough Model has had significant reach: it is now embedded in
many HEI's support
policies (e.g. Office for Fair Access (OFFA) Agreements at Coventry,
Sheffield, York and
elsewhere) and facilities (details below).
In response to Croft's and Crook's research, LU led a consortium in
setting up mathcentre, an
online collection of learning resources (leaflets, workbook, video
tutorials) designed to support
students in the transition to mathematically demanding undergraduate
courses. This resource
continues to be widely used and in the period 06/2008 to 05/2012 received
1.65 million visits from
1.1 million visitors, which includes a widespread international user base.
These resources are used
extensively by the academic community: an analysis in 2012 showed 80% of
directed students to mathcentre from their institutional Virtual
Learning Environments (VLEs).
mathcentre resources are a valued and highly trusted resource, the
MSC manager at the National
University of Ireland Maynooth wrote that his institution uses "material
directly from mathcentre,
mainly videos, texts and quizzes" [5.1], and that his evaluations
have shown that students who use
these resources regularly "do better in their modules than those who do
In line with the findings of Crook's ESRC-funded research, LU not only
mathematics support, but also a real-world support centre designed to
foster a productive learning
community. An initiative to develop such provision led to a collaborative
venture with Coventry
University, and LU was awarded Centre for Excellence in Teaching &
Learning (CETL) status by
HEFCE (2005-2010). A key goal of the CETL, which became known as sigma,
was to encourage
the development of MSCs at other universities. This was accomplished via
First, sigma offered funding for the establishment of MSCs at
universities without such centres.
This required matched funding and buy-in from senior management and became
a catalyst for
placing mathematics support on institutional agendas. In 2005 three MSCs
were set up with sigma
funding (Bath, Sheffield, Leeds), all have continued to successfully
operate during the REF
assessment period. As part of their funding agreement, the MSCs were
required to monitor student
usage: in the three years from 2008 a total of 9684 visits were made by
students to these MSCs
(suggesting that there were around 19,000 visits across the assessment
Second, sigma staff engaged with the mathematical community to
disseminate on-going research
and the Loughborough Model via practitioner conferences. One clear example
is the annual MSOR
(Mathematics, Statistics and Operations Research)-CETL Conference,
co-organised by Croft,
which has grown significantly and is now attended by over 100 delegates
With the end of CETL funding in 2010, the importance of sigma's
work for tackling the
`mathematics problem' was recognised by the HE STEM Programme through the
award of £295k
in 2010 [5.3]. A further £818k of continuation funding was awarded
by HEFCE in 2013, and sigma
was subsequently described as an "important initiative" by the Minister of
State for Universities and
Science [5.4]. To date this additional funding has enabled sigma
to transfer and embed the
Loughborough model at over 20 UK HEIs [5.3]. All these MSCs, and
others, have made heavy use
of the mathcentre online learning resources [e.g. 5.1, 5.5,
To illustrate the success of these centres, in 2012 the University of
York cited its sigma-funded
MSC in its OFFA Access Agreement, stating that "[the service] has been
very well utilised and we
plan to expand this service to meet some additional areas of identified
need" [5.6, 5.7], and the
2012 Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) Institutional
Review of the university
found the MSC to be a headline feature of good practice [5.6, 5.8].
Between 2010 (when the
service was founded) and 2012 there were 1751 visits to the Centre, and a
evaluation concluded that 95% of users believed that the centre helped
The significance that the research-based practice developed at
Loughborough University has had
throughout the higher education sector is now widely recognised. Indeed,
external colleagues have
praised the impact of the Loughborough Model directly. The Executive
Director of the Institute of
Mathematics and its Applications wrote that "It is hard to overstate the
importance of the expansion
of the sigma Network to the higher education community." [5.10],
and the Director of the Irish
Centre for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and Learning
remarked "We stand on
the shoulders of giants. From our view, the giants are Coventry and
and sigma. We have unashamedly copied our ideas from them" [5.2].
Sources to corroborate the impact
The following sources of corroboration can be made available at request:
5.1. Letter from the Director of the Mathematics Support Centre,
National University of Ireland,
Maynooth (29th March 2013).
5.2. Waller, D. (2012). The legacy and sustainability of sigma. MSOR
Connections, 12(2), 39-41.
5.3. HE STEM Programme Report ("National HE STEM Programme:
Curriculum Change and Institutional Impact Within Higher Education", by
Tolley, Professor David Greatbatch, Dr Helen Mackenzie.
5.4. "Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education",
Report by Rt Hon David Willetts
MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science. http://bit.ly/17DB56B
5.5. Letter from the Director of the Maths Learning Centre at
Dublin City University, and former
Chair of the Irish Mathematics Learning Support Network (15th March 2013).
5.6. Letter from the Project Office for Mathematics Support,
University of York (15th March 2013).
5.7. University of York Access Agreement 2012, http://bit.ly/14hc28X
5.8. University of York QAA Institutional Review 2012, http://bit.ly/100lMVH
5.9. "The Mathematics Support Community of Practice: A report of
the achievements of sigma
within the National HE STEM Programme", http://bit.ly/ZUwN7h
5.10. Letter from Executive Director, Institute of Mathematics and
its Applications (28th March