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30 January 2012 | PR 12/13

Examining the best way to test true understanding of maths

Maths photo

Academics at Loughborough University will be assessing how the quality of GCSE mathematics exams can be improved as part of a new project.

Maths exams have been criticised for being made up of short, factual questions that do not test deep understanding of mathematics.  This is considered to have a negative effect on classrooms by encouraging the repetitive learning of facts.

As such there have been recent calls for exams to be made up of long questions that better test in-depth knowledge.  However, an objection to introducing such questions is that they cannot be marked reliably and so students cannot be sure of getting the grade they deserve.

Loughborough’s Dr Ian Jones and Dr Matthew Inglis from the University’s Mathematics Education Centre will be testing an assessment method that offers an alternative to traditional marking.

For this new method examiners would be given pairs of students' exam scripts and asked to decide which of the two is ‘the most able mathematician’.  The outcomes of many such pairings would then be used to construct a statistically reliable rank order of students.

“The method is based on a long standing psychological principle that people are very unreliable at making absolute judgements, but are highly reliable at making relative judgements of one thing with another,” explains Dr Jones.  “The project is timely because recent technological developments mean the method is only now viable for large scale educational assessment.  The outcome of the work will be to provide evidence on how deep understanding of mathematics can be assessed fairly and reliably.”

The project is being funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Royal Society, the Shuttleworth Foundation and the Worshipful Company of Actuaries.  For further information visit: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/improving-quality-gcse-mathematics-examinations

In 2011 the University’s Mathematics Education Centre, in partnership with Coventry University, won the Times Higher Education award for ‘Outstanding support for students’.  This was in recognition of the work of sigma – a collaborative venture, which aims to help students advance their mathematical and statistical skills.


For all media enquiries contact:

Judy Wing
Senior PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 228697
E: J.L.Wing@lboro.ac.uk 

Notes for editors:

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2011 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the UK’s Best Student Experience every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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